COLUMBIA — The majority of Columbia’s patrol officers will soon be carrying one of the most debated non-lethal weapons in the country: the Taser stun gun.
The Columbia Police Department will spend $30,000 of grant money this year to equip 32 of its officers with Tasers. With 38 patrol officers already carrying the devices, at least 70 of the division’s 82 officers on the street will be carrying them by the end of the year.
According to the Columbia police Taser Policy, officers should not use the taser:
- When lethal force is clearly justified, unless another officer is present and able to immediately use lethal force should the Taser be ineffective
- Against a person who is operating a running motor vehicle, unless the officer is certain that the vehicle is immobile
- Against a person holding a firearm
- Against a person who has come in contact with flammable liquids
- Against a woman who is pregnant
- Against a person who is at the extremes of age, or physically frail
The upcoming purchase reflects the department’s philosophy that officers armed with Tasers are not only less likely to be injured but are also less likely to hurt those they are arresting. It comes at a time when the use of Tasers is being challenged all over the country.
A 37-year-old Chicago man died Tuesday after police used a Taser stun gun on him, according to the Chicago Tribune. The National Institute of Justice, a part of the Department of Justice, has launched several independent studies to evaluate the safety of stun guns.
Columbia police Capt. Tom Dresner, Columbia’s SWAT commander, said no officer has discharged a firearm on duty since 1998 when the department began using another non-lethal option: bean-bag and rubber projectile guns.
“This is just another tool in our tool bag,” Dresner said of the device that provides another alternative to pepper spray, deadly force, the baton and hands-on tactics. However, “there will always be times when lethal force is necessary, even when less lethal (measures) might have been available.”
Capt. Steven Monticelli, Columbia patrol division commander, said the devices have helped decrease injuries to police and suspects. The department also emphasizes checks and balances: patrol officers are required to report every time they unholster their Taser.
Taser International Inc. has sold its stun guns to at least 11,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, claiming they are safe, according to the company’s Web site. The device is used to prevent suicides, among other various injuries to violent suspects who are being arrested, the site states. But the company’s safety claims are being challenged.
Amnesty International USA reports that since 2001 more than 290 people have died in the U.S. after being Tasered.
In a two-week span in August 2005, four lawsuits were filed against Taser International Inc. in Maricopa County Superior Court, Ariz., on behalf of police officers in Florida, Kansas, New Mexico and Ohio, according to the Associated Press.
The personal injury and wrongful death suits accuse the Arizona-based company of encouraging officers to get shocked during training and of hiding information on injuries. The officers claimed they suffered “severe and permanent” injuries like broken spines, burns, a shoulder dislocation and soft-tissue injuries.
One such case is a personal injury lawsuit filed in St. Louis by former Hallsville police chief and city administrator, Jacob “Pete” Herring.
In the suit, filed in August 2005, Herring claimed he suffered heart damage and two strokes as a result of a shock he endured while being hooked up to a cardiac monitor in order to demonstrate the safety of the device in 2004. He said he suffered hearing and vision loss, as well as neurological damage. He resigned from his city administrator’s position in the fall of 2007 due to his failing health.
In June 2007, Taser International Inc. and Ed Roehr Auto Radio company in St. Louis were dismissed as defendants in the civil suit.
Recently, the suit was resolved out of court, by Law Enforcement Equipment Co. and Herring, said Spencer Eisenmenger, Herring’s lawyer.
Law Enforcement Equipment Co. conducted Herring’s Taser training session.
Another civil suit filed by a motorist who was Tasered against the Utah Highway Patrol was settled for $40,000 on March 10.
At least 15 states have banned or restricted Tasers for personal use. The company is named as a defendant in 38 lawsuits alleging either wrongful death or personal injury “in which the TASER device was used (or present) by law enforcement officers or during training exercises,” according to the company’s annual report.
The report said 66 other lawsuits have been dismissed or ruled in Taser International Inc.’s favor.
The company is currently suing the Chief Medical Examiner of Summit County, Ohio, “to correct erroneous cause of death determinations relating” to autopsy reports, the report said.
Boom and Done
Columbia police maintain that their officers and the people they arrest benefit from the use of the stun gun.
According to statistics kept by Monticelli, police have brandished their Tasers at least 11 times so far this year.
In 2007, patrol officers who carried the device took it out of their holsters at least 57 times. Most of the uses have been intended to gain compliance with a suspect — taking the Taser out of its holster and doing a one-second shock test, or shining the Taser’s laser site on a suspect.
That number is a drop from 2006, when patrol officers unholstered the device at least 78 times. That year, suspects backed down about 46 times without the stun gun being used.
Monticelli said Tasers are used in a small number of arrests. In more than 142,000 calls for service in 2007, police brandished their Tasers only a fraction of one percent of the time, according to statistics.
Since Columbia police first bought two Tasers in 2005, officer injuries per year have gone from 22 in 2005 to 17 in 2006 to 5 in 2007.
“As we’re getting more Tasers, our injuries to officers have definitely decreased,” Monticelli said.
However, he said he didn’t have enough data to link the decrease in officer injuries directly to the purchase of Tasers.
Maj. Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department said that the effect of Tasers has been felt nationwide.
“I know that on the national average, with the inception of the Taser devices, those numbers (of injuries during arrest) have gone down across the board,” Reddin said.
There have been no reported suspects injured who have been Tasered by Columbia police officers, Monticelli said. He said rather than using other more painful, non-lethal options, like batons or pepper spray, officers can now shock an uncooperative suspect into submission without causing any lasting physical effect.
Columbia police Officer Jason Baillargeon said most suspects who are shocked recover quickly after the five-second burst of electricity is delivered.
Baillargeon is one of two officers in the department who teach other officers how to use the device. He was trained at Taser International Inc.’s Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters in 2005.
“If an officer is going to deploy a Taser and there is a likelihood that (the person being Tasered) might fall off a steep embankment, then that officer is taught not to use it,” Baillargeon said.
Columbia officers are not required to receive a shock from a Taser in order to go through the training.
The first law enforcement agency in Boone County to use Tasers was the Boone County Sheriff’s Department. The department initially bought Tasers in 2002 for its Boone County Jail staff.
Today every officer in the enforcement division carries a Taser. The department has about 50 on its staff.
Sgt. Chad Martin of the sheriff’s department credits the technology with saving lives. He cited the example of a deputy who recently disarmed a man brandishing a sword by using the Taser.
Reddin said if it hadn’t been for a Taser, deputies might have had to shoot the sword-wielding man.
“We don’t have to go hands on or strike them with batons,” Martin said of the devices. “It’s almost effortless. It’s surely less effort on the officer’s part as the suspect is taken into custody, and it reduces the suspect’s chances of struggling with us.”
Near 100 percent safe
While Taser International Inc. says that most people who are injured by their product are experiencing what is termed “excited delirium” — a term the company and law enforcement use liberally — critics say there is still not enough scientific research to come to any conclusions about the safety of the device.
And that’s the problem, said Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty International USA’s program focusing on domestic human rights: the weapon has been embraced by law enforcement agencies without adequate testing.
“We just want more testing on this weapon,” Hashad said. “We need to let the researchers have the time and finances.”
The National Institute of Justice is investigating deaths that followed the use of Tasers. Although some of that preliminary testing has been finished, Hashad said police aren’t being given adequate information about how the Taser device might affect those who are, for example, using drugs or are elderly.
One of Amnesty International’s biggest gripes is that police officers don’t always understand when it is appropriate to use the device.
As for “excited delirium” — which is defined as “a state of extreme mental and physiological excitement, characterized by extreme agitation, hyperthermia, euphoria, hostility, exceptional strength and endurance without fatigue” — Hashad isn’t so sure. The condition doesn’t explain why some people die after being Tasered.
“It’s not accepted by any major medical association,” Hashad said of the condition. “Why does excited delirium only appear in the context when a police officer shoots a person with a Taser?”
Dennis K. McBride, the academic president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, said he analyzed the effects of the device using cases of recorded of deaths that the Amnesty International claimed might have been caused by Tasering.
“(In 2005) there was 72 cases where someone had died subsequent to being stunned, and I examined each,” McBride said.
McBride said at the time he conducted his research, stun guns had been used over 100,000 times.
The Potomac Institute, a not-for-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C., concluded that Tasers are near perfect, McBride said. He said a majority of the deaths that did occur involved multiple uses of force by police —
for example, when an officer uses both a Taser and pepper spray — or drug use by suspects.
“If you reason your way through it, typically you have young males that are in good health that are being Tasered. They are fighting with drugs on board. Their bodies are being driven beyond their physical capacity,” McBride said. That is when injuries or death can occur.
But both McBride and Hashad agree that the device is not properly regulated by any federal agency.
There is no independent federal database that maintains all the uses of Tasers by police officers, or the number of injuries that occur after a suspect is Tasered, Hashad said.
“What is the impact of multiple and prolonged shocks on people who are drunk, high, whatever?” Hashad said. “All of that should have been done, but it’s not to late too rectify this situation for people in the future.”
Columbia police believe there are few risks.
The police department has never received a complaint from a suspect who has been Tasered, Monticelli said.
“I’ve had a couple say ‘I’m not complaining about being Tasered. I was an idiot, I’m complaining about (something else),” he said.
Still, all officers who receive the devices will be required to go through a certification class each year. The department is also looking at improving accountability for use of the Taser. A patrol officer in the First Ward is testing a camera that is attached to the bottom of the device that creates an instant video record.
“(Tasers) provide an avenue that is safe for all involved,” Monticelli said. “You’re going to hurt someone a lot more if you do a flying tackle.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.