Balto. Co. police test effectiveness of Tasers

Officials hope stun guns are a safer way to control suspects

August 24, 2006|By Nick Shields | Nick Shields,Sun reporter

Baltimore County police officers patrol the streets with a pistol, an expandable baton and a canister of pepper spray. Now, some are carrying another crime-fighting tool: a stun gun.

For the past several months, some patrol officers have been carrying a Taser as part of a pilot program. The department has sent one to each of its 10 precincts.

Maj. Mark Warren of the Baltimore County police said the department will be looking to see whether the device helps officers safely subdue unruly suspects.

"We're not trying to hurt anybody," said Warren, who researched the device for the department. "We're just trying to control the issue."

The manufacturer and proponents say the Taser is a reliable way to control combative individuals who pose a risk to law enforcement officers. Taser International officials say the device is in use or being tested by more than 8,000 law enforcement, military and correctional agencies in the United States and abroad.

Others, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, say the $1,200 Taser should not be used by police officers.

"There isn't as much discretion in the use of them even though they can seriously hurt people," said Meredith Curtis, an ACLU spokeswoman. "We don't think they're the right direction, especially if what you're trying to accomplish is a community policing model."

Amnesty International USA says that 61 people died last year after being shocked by law enforcement agency stun guns and that at least 150 people have died since 2001, but news accounts show that such incidents often spark debate over whether the device caused the deaths.

According to the company's Web site, Taser technology is not risk-free, but independent medical and scientific experts have found Taser devices to be a more effective and a safer use of force option than traditional nonlethal tools.

In Anne Arundel County, police officials recently chose to equip officers with beanbag shotguns after several incidents this spring, including the fatal shooting of a mentally ill college freshman.

Taser International officials said that about 88 Maryland law enforcement agencies use the device. Baltimore City police and the Maryland State Police use Tasers in their tactical units.

First Sgt. Russell Newell, a state police spokesman, said that the department has had Tasers for more than 15 years but that they have been deployed fewer than 10 times.

"The department has found them to be very effective for unruly subjects," he said.

The Taser works by firing probes from the gun onto a person, a company official and police said. The probes are connected to the Taser device that sends an electrical signal that causes a person to immediately lose neuromuscular control.

The stun gun has been used by the county police tactical unit for several years. Warren was assigned to look into the idea of expanding its use to patrol officers. During his research and training he volunteered to have the device, which sends an electric shock of 50,000 volts, used on him.

"It absolutely froze me," he said. "It totally took over my muscular system. I was aware and couldn't wait for it to end. It's a very effective tool."

Vicki Almond, a member of the Franklin Precinct's police council, said she agrees with the department's decision to try out the device with patrol officers as long as the department is not "using it on a daily basis, in a careless way."

"Thankfully, they haven't given it to every officer," she said. "I think that would have been frightening to the community."

Once the trial period ends in March, county police officials will decide whether the devices were used properly and whether they were effective in reducing officers' injuries during confrontations.

Since July, the device had been used 15 times, police said. Of the 15 uses, 13 were on people and two were on dogs. Suspects have only reported puncture wounds from the Taser's darts, police said.

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