COLUMBIA — Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey wants his officers to keep their Tasers, and he's asking Columbia voters to let them.
At Tuesday night's meeting of the Boone County Pachyderm Club, Carey said Electronic Control Devices keep officers and suspects safer when used properly.
This is the ballot language for proposition 2 as it will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot:
Shall the proposed initiative ordinance pertaining to tasers and other conducted electrical devices be passed?
The proposed ordinance would make it a Class A misdemeanor for individuals, including police officers, to use or threaten to use tasers, stun guns or any other conducted electrical device against any person within the city.
"The big thing with the Taser is you don't have the hands-on combat," he said.
Carey said that because the Boone County Jail is inside the Columbia city limits, and because his officers frequently respond to calls in the city, a ban on Tasers would take away a valuable tool.
"I don't want a tool to be taken away from my deputies because of a city initiative," Carey said.
Carey said Tasers are a great equalizer in tense situations.
"Way back in the day, I'd go hand-to-hand with anyone," he said. "But, when a deputy gets a little older and has to fight a younger guy, there are a lot of issues."
Eapen Thampy, a policy analyst for Americans for Forfeiture Reform, spoke in favor of Proposition 2, which, if passed, would ban the use of Tasers by police and private citizens in the city. He said his concern is not so much with the weapons themselves, but with the Columbia Police Department's use of them.
"I oppose the Columbia Police Department having Tasers because a lot of officers are not using them properly," Thampy said. "It's not the Taser; it's the operator. I don't support the kind of gung-ho attitude a lot of CPD officers show."
By contrast, he said the Boone County Sheriff's Department is well-trained.
"Boone County sheriffs use their Tasers all the time, and you never hear about it," he said. "But a lot of (Columbia) officers have been unprofessional and don't know the basics of conflict resolution."
Taser International began producing Electronic Control Devices in September 1993, and its products are used worldwide by law enforcement agencies, the military and correctional institutions, mostly in the United States and Canada. Taser products are also available commercially for use as personal protection devices.
While Taser International claims its products are safe and reduce the likelihood of injury to law enforcement officers, not everyone agrees.
Ken Green of People for a Taser-Free Columbia said there are big problems with the “less lethal” weapons.
“Taser International basically lied to police departments for years by calling the Taser a non-lethal weapon,” Green said. “It can be a lethal weapon. It’s playing with language, but when you consider 500 people have died and thousands have been injured after having them deployed, you have to question that.”
Green also worries about the potential cost to the city regarding lawsuits related to the use of Tasers. Green said People for a Taser-Free Columbia is concerned because “we feel the Taser is an unreliable weapon and because of litigation all over the country because of Taser abuse.”
Some high-profile incidents in mid-Missouri back up that concern. On Aug. 18, 2005, Hallsville police chief Jacob “Pete” Herring filed suit against Taser International after he voluntarily subjected himself to the device to show residents it was safe. He claimed in the lawsuit that the electric shock caused heart damage, vision and hearing loss. He said he had a heart attack and two strokes, and suffered neurological damage as a result of the exposure.
The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
On July 25, 2008, 45-year-old Phillip Lee McDuffy was Tasered by Columbia police as he threatened to jump from a bridge over Interstate 70. After police deployed a Taser on McDuffy, he fell from the bridge, breaking both arms, his jaw and facial bones. He settled with the city for $300,000.
On Aug. 28, 2008, 23-year-old Stanley Harlan of Moberly died after police deployed a Taser on him during a traffic stop. His family sued the city of Moberly and won a $2.4 million settlement.
At an Aug. 16 public hearing on Tasers before the City Council, Green said the warning police give before deploying Tasers — currently “Taser, Taser, Taser” — should be replaced with “Lawsuit, lawsuit, lawsuit.”
People for a Taser-Free Columbia collected 3,667 signatures on an initiative petition seeking a ban on the use of Tasers and similar devices in the city. City Clerk Sheela Amin certified the petition, leaving the City Council with two options: approve an ordinance establishing the ban or put the issue to voters on Nov. 2. It chose on a unanimous vote to do the latter.
The pro-ban group also worries about a lack of transparency regarding Tasers on the part of the Police Department.
“They’re stonewalling,” Green said. “I mean, they’re working for us, right?”
At Monday night’s City Council meeting, attorney Ed Berg asked the council to provide information about the use of Tasers at no charge and to post that information on the city’s website.
But, others see a benefit in the use of Tasers by police. Eric Dearmont told the City Council on Aug. 16, the night it voted to put the measure on the ballot, that Tasers should be a tool available to officers.
“Out there in the community, there is always someone bigger, taller, stronger and faster.” He said the Taser is a better alternative to other non-lethal options, such as an officer’s baton.
Mayor Bob McDavid echoed those sentiments at that meeting, when he pointed out the security officer in the council chambers. “I want him to be able to go home to his family safely.”