Police consider use of Taser

Council OK'd electronic weapons for officers

no plans yet to buy

April 09, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY | ANNIE LINSKEY,SUN REPORTER

The Anne Arundel County Council's decision last week to allow law enforcement agencies to carry electronic weapons - the most commonly known is the Taser - clears the only legal hurdle that had prevented the county's police and sheriff's departments from issuing the weapons to their staff.

Neither department, however, has any immediate plans to arm the officers or deputies with the much-debated weapons, which cost at least $800 each.

"We're looking at it," said County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV. "We're seeing how other agencies are using them."

Lt. David D. Waltemeyer Jr., a spokesman for the county police, said his department is studying the weapons.

Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said he introduced the measure after several county officers approached him about it. The bill passed last week, 7-0.

O'Brien Atkinson IV, the president of the county police union, said there was a "groundswell" of support from officers for the legislation.

Annapolis resident Stephen E. Widlak spoke in opposition to the measure at the council meeting. "Usage should be restricted and further research should be done," he said in a phone interview. "I don't want county police to carry them."

The Taser can deliver a 50,000-volt shock to a person. Two prongs attached to thin wires shoot out from the weapon and are designed to penetrate the skin of the suspect. At that point, the officer can deliver a shock that is designed to briefly incapacitate a suspect.

"Your muscles contract and down you go," said Albert Arena, a project manager at the International Association of Chiefs of Police who has studied the weapon. The effect wears off after 30 seconds, but the officer can deliver additional jolts. Both prongs must hit the suspect for the weapon to be effective.

Arena said the weapons also can be used like cattle prods - an officer can turn one on and press it against the skin of a suspect.

And, Arena said, just seeing a Taser is sometimes enough to subdue a suspect.

County Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, likened the Taser to a police dog as an effective deterrent to confrontation.

"You bring it out and the bad guys will stand down," he said at the council meeting last week.

The Maryland State Police have found a "show of force" with the Taser to be effective, said Sgt. Thornnie Rouse, a police spokesman. The department owns fewer than 10 Tasers, and they've been fired about 10 times over 15 years, he said.

The Taser, however, has attracted negative publicity after news reports of suspects dying in custody and of officers using the weapons against minors.

Amnesty International called last month for officers to use the weapons only when there is a threat of "death or serious injury" or when an officer would otherwise use a gun. More than 150 people have died since 2001 after being zapped by a Taser, according to a recent report by the human rights organization.

Michael White, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said those figures don't necessarily mean Tasers are unsafe. "No medical examiner or coroner in those cases has said the Taser was the cause of death," White said.

The federal government has funded several studies to examine the link between the deaths and the weapon, White said.

Also, the weapons have attracted criticism from areas where departments allow officers to reach for a Taser when the threat level from a suspect is low, White said.

One reason that departments like Tasers is that the weapon can be used to reduce risk to officers.

County police officers are equipped with batons, pepper spray and guns. The baton is used in close quarters - within a few feet - and pepper spray can be employed at distances of 2 to 10 feet. The ideal range for the Taser is 5 to 12 feet, White said, although a Taser representative said the device can be used at a range of about 21 feet.

About 8,000 departments in the country use Tasers, including those in Seattle, Miami and Phoenix, according to the company.

And some police departments that use the weapons have seen the numbers of worker compensation claims decline by millions of dollars after issuing them, according to figures provided by the company.

Last year in Anne Arundel County, 27 officers filed injury claims after being assaulted by suspects, according to figures provided by the county's risk assessment department. Over the past five years, 20 percent of workers' compensation claims have been related to situations where the officer was assaulted.

"The whole idea," White said, "is it gives the officer an option other than wrestling with a physically combative subject."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Phillip McGowan contributed to this article.

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