Las Vegas Metro Police See Value of Tasers; Incident Underscores Need for Optional Weapon
By Timothy Pratt
LAS VEGAS SUN
High-level Metro Police brass received rave reviews from beat cops Tuesday on a pilot project only weeks old involving the nonlethal weapon known as a Taser.
The meeting came the day after two officers shot and killed 21-year-old Charles M. Rorie III, a robbery suspect, in southwest Las Vegas. Rorie was accused of stealing a bottle of Olde English 800 malt liquor from a convenience store. He then allegedly lunged at two officers with a knife before both of them shot him.
Metro has been testing the Tasers, which shock whoever is shot by it, in a pilot program in the South Central Area Command.
The officers who shot Rorie didn't have the Tasers. They were not in the area command which is trying the Tasers, but Monday's shooting highlighted the need to move the program forward, Metro Deputy Chief Carl Fruge said.
"I'm not sure (the Taser) would have been the right weapon in the incident ... but it would have been available to the officers as one more option," said Fruge, who oversees the South Central command.
Being careful not to second guess the incident, the shooting of Rorie "does give us a sense of urgency" to get Tasers in the hands of officers, he said.
The Metro review had been previously scheduled to look at a program that has trained 107 officers, 16 sergeants and four lieutenants in the South Central Area Command in the last month how to use a Taser. The weapon sends 50,000 volts of electricity through the body, immobilizing whoever receives the shock without causing injury.
Tasers have reduced shootings by officers in other departments, Fruge said. Metro is part of "a wave of police agencies across the nation" adopting the weapon, Fruge said.
Hong Lu, associate professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the overall trend of attempting to reduce the use of force can be seen as "part of an ongoing public relations campaign to make the police look good ... that began in the 1980s when we started to be aware of how police officers act in the community and on the street and began hearing about police shooting civilians."
Locally the Henderson Police Department has been phasing Tasers into use during the past two years, with about 45 now in use, spokesman Shane Lewis said.
The North Las Vegas Police Department has begun a 90-day pilot program in the last two weeks, testing the weapon with six officers, spokesman Justin Roberts said. In addition, North Las Vegas Municipal Court bailiffs began using Tasers in June.
Monday's fatal shooting was the seventh in the year to date by a Metro officer -- equaling the total for 2002. Metro officers shot and killed six people in 2001.
Metro Sheriff Bill Young has pushed Tasers as one of the changes to the department's use of force policy announced in May. In addition to the pilot project, which included the purchase of about 60 Tasers, Metro obtained a $371,000 grant last month and will match that money with a smaller amount to purchase about 350 more Tasers in the coming months, said Undersheriff Doug Gillespie. Metro has about 1,100 officers on patrol.
There are delays in using the grant, however, and Monday's incident highlighted the need to move the project along as soon as possible, Fruge said.
The meeting on the pilot project included three deputy chiefs, other high-level personnel and some of the officers who have used the Taser in recent weeks.
During that time officers with South Central have used the Taser 11 times, Fruge said.
"The results are very promising and there were no injuries except for a small laceration in one case when a suspect fell to the ground," Fruge said.
"In each situation, the potential for much more harm was dramatic -- in one case, an officer struggled for control with a suspect who had knives."
In the one incident where North Las Vegas officers used the weapon since that department began testing the weapon Aug. 28, the situation also involved a suspected robber in a convenience store who had a knife.
"(The Taser) worked wonderfully ... It saved (the suspect's) life," said North Las Vegas spokesman Justin Roberts.
Gary Peck, executive director for the Nevada chapter of the ACLU, said Metro's review of their use of force and interest in Tasers were both laudable.
"I commend the department for taking the issue of use of force as serious as it is ... (and) in principle, Tasers are probably a good idea assuming the proper training goes along with it," he said.
At the same time, however, Peck thought that 11 incidents involving the Taser in a few weeks seemed like a high number.
"This is a level of force that should be used only in appropriate circumstances," he said. "Absent these Tasers, what would the officers have done to control the situations?"
In Monday's shooting, Rorie was within seven to 10 feet of the two officers, Metro Capt. Tom Lozich said. Eric Ellson, one of four witnesses, told the Sun that Rorie had an eight-inch serrated bread knife. The officers -- whose names are being withheld for 48 hours as per department policy -- fired "multiple shots" at Rorie after he disobeyed their orders to stop, Lozich said.
The Taser gun is effective at distances up to 21 feet, but Lozich wouldn't say whether the weapon would have been useful in Monday's incident.
"This guy's using deadly force, and you've got to act accordingly -- I can't speculate on the use of a Taser," he said.
Despite the glowing reports given the Taser in Tuesday's meeting, the timeline for getting more of the nonlethal weapons into the hands of Metro officers was also a matter of speculation.
Fruge said the money for the Tasers, which came from a Clark County Local Law Enforcement Block Grant, had not yet been disbursed, and he wasn't sure when the funds would be available to Metro.
Still -- "if everything goes right" -- about 400 Tasers should be in use department-wide by the first few months of 2004, he said.
Gillespie said the holdup was due to high demand for the newest model of Taser, manufactured by a company based in Arizona. He said Metro had already placed an order "in the area of 400" Tasers but wouldn't know for another month when the weapons would be shipped.
After the weapons arrive and officers are trained, there should be a Taser with every Metro squad car on any given shift, he said.
Meanwhile, the two officers involved in Monday's shooting will be on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a coroner's inquest which will determine if the shooting was justified.
An employee at the Chevron convenience store on Durango Drive and Spring Mountain Road Tuesday night said his fellow employees who were in the store Monday had taken the day off because they "were pretty upset." "They didn't think the outcome would be what it was ... and that it would end in death," he said, before excusing himself and hanging up the phone.