Howard weighs use of stun guns

September 25, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun Reporter

The Howard County Police Department is the latest in the region to consider purchasing hand-held stun guns that makers say reduce the number of assaults on officers but detractors allege can be lethal and sometimes misused.

The purchase of the devices would require the Howard County Council to reverse a prohibition on stun guns enacted in the 1980s after local police began confronting criminals who were armed with them. An exception for law enforcement was not included in the law.

"If there's a potential for anything, it would be a pilot program," said acting police Chief William J. McMahon, who has formed a group to study the issue. "We're not going to go out and approve 380 of them," or one stun gun per officer.

Should Howard County go ahead with such a program, the county police force would join a small but growing number of Maryland law enforcement agencies using or studying the devices on a limited basis.

Baltimore has distributed two stun guns to each of the city's nine districts; 18 to the emergency services unit, which often handles barricaded subjects; and eight to the SWAT team. Baltimore police spokesman Matt Jablow said the city plans to equip SWAT officers with the devices, which is likely to more than double the city's number.

The Anne Arundel County Council approved the use of stun guns in the spring, and police there are researching the technology. Baltimore County officers are testing 10 of the devices on the streets.

Maryland's State Police's SWAT team has used stun guns since the mid-1990s. They have been used fewer than 10 times since then, said 1st Sgt. Russell Newell, a spokesman for state police.

The limited use of the devices in Maryland contrasts sharply with law enforcement practices in states such as Florida, where stun guns are issued to officers along with their handguns.

The stun guns are commonly referred to as Tasers, the brand most widely used in law enforcement. One popular model, the X26, costs about $1,200 when equipped with a video camera and can shoot electrified darts up to 21 feet.

When shocked with the devices, suspects lose control of their muscles and collapse. The effects usually last long enough for an officer to put handcuffs on a suspect, although some recover quickly and might continue to resist officers.

Critics say the devices have been implicated as a cause or contributing factor in deaths.

A March report from the human rights organization Amnesty International said that 61 people died in the United States last year after being shocked - repeatedly in most cases - by police officers' stun guns and that 152 people have died in such incidents since June 2001. But proponents of the technology argue that other factors - obesity, drug use, heart disease - caused the deaths.

Doug Ward, deputy director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, said that little independent research on stun guns exists - most of it is funded by manufacturers. That's one reason, he said, that police chiefs in Maryland have moved slowly.

"The chiefs would like to see a little more independent testing," said Ward, a former Maryland State Police major. "They'd like to see analysis of their use over longer periods because every time they see an unintentional death, it raises all of these issues again.

"They genuinely want to have more options for less-than-lethal force available to their officers, but they're a little uncertain whether to proceed because of the deaths that have occurred around the country."

McMahon said the law enforcement community is changing its rhetoric on stun guns. Once considered "less-than-lethal" devices, he and others in the field now call stun guns and expandable batons "less-lethal" methods of force, an acknowledgement that use of the devices can result in death.

Law enforcement agencies that widely deploy the weapons have come under criticism for the frequency of their use and the circumstances under which they're used.

In one of the most egregious abuses, an Orlando, Fla., police officer stunned a subject who was disruptive but chained to a hospital bed.

According to Taser International's Web site, 87 percent of law enforcement agencies permit the use of Tasers at or before the moment in which an officer would otherwise use pepper spray. That could mean a situation in which a subject fails to obey orders but does not pose a physical threat.

The stricter the standards governing their use, the less controversial the use of the devices.

"If a guy is threatening an officer with a baseball bat, you can't get close or he'll crush you, but you don't want to shoot and kill him," Ward said. "That's when the Taser can bridge the gap. ... The time to use them is when it's pretty drastic. You either shoot them or stun them."

McMahon said that he has an idea of where stun guns should fall on his department's "use of force continuum" but would wait for the working group's report to make decisions about the devices.

After consulting with County Executive James N. Robey, McMahon formed the group - made up of representatives from his education and training division, special operations team and the county's offices of law and risk management - shortly after he took office June 1.

McMahon said that if the county were to purchase stun guns, their use would be reviewed by the internal affairs division. The results of the review would then flow up a chain of command and eventually land on his desk.

Ward said that it's imperative to identify officers who use the weapons more than others.

"Some officers, if they don't have the proper skills in talking to people, end up in fistfights, which forces them to use Tasers or their batons," he said. "Their people skills have just eroded over the years - sometimes they get cynical - and you need to address those people with more training and more emphasis on politeness and how to deal with people."

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