Stun guns avert trouble, Harford police say

November 09, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,sun reporter

From a suicidal teenager to a suspected car thief who flees on foot, some people who have refused to cooperate with Harford County police have been getting a wake-up call -- the 50,000-volt variety.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office is believed to be among the first police agencies in Maryland to issue Taser stun guns to its deputies, who have used the devices to stop people who flee or refuse to comply with orders, and for the mentally ill who become violent.

The agency has been issuing stun guns to patrol deputies since last year, and they have used them on at least 28 occasions since January. One incident involved a 50-year-old schizophrenic woman who had barricaded herself in a closet and was shocked with a stun gun because a deputy feared she could get to weapons in another room.

The agency says the devices, which have been criticized for causing fatalities, have been most effective as a deterrent to violence and limit injuries to suspects and officers. A spokesman said assaults on officers were down.

"It is far more useful than engaging someone in hand-to-hand combat or taking action with a baton," said Robert B. Thomas, a spokesman for the agency.

The agency first purchased stun guns in 2002 and has been phasing them into the arsenal of weapons used by all patrol deputies. Harford is not alone -- more than 7,000 of the 18,000 police agencies in the United States use the weapons, according to a March report by Amnesty International, and 1,700 police departments have purchased them for every officer.

With increased use, however, has come greater scrutiny. Amnesty International said there had been at least 156 deaths across the country related to police stun guns in the past five years, and dozens of excessive-force lawsuits have been brought by people who say they were injured by officers.

"The good part about having all officers equipped is that when they encounter a threat, they don't have to call for assistance or wait for a SWAT team to arrive," said Doug Ward, associate director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership. "The downside is that they tend to find ways to use them, and there are horror stories from across the country where people encounter medical issues after getting [stunned] multiple times."

Other area jurisdictions are considering purchasing stun guns or are using them on a limited basis. The Anne Arundel County Council approved the use of the weapons in the spring, and police there are researching the technology.

Baltimore County officers are testing 10 of the devices on the streets and have used them more than two dozen times since April, said Maj. Mark Warren, who spent six months as a fellow at the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington studying stun-gun policies across the country.

In Harford County, Sheriff R. Thomas Golding has authorized deputies to use the devices for the past two years. Deputies take an eight-hour training course and are issued the devices along with their service weapons. The agency, which has about 130 patrol deputies, has 149 stun guns in use, and 32 more have been ordered.

Reports on 12 incidents that were provided to The Sun showed that the stun guns were used primarily in domestic situations, two of which did not result in arrests. The most recent incident in which a stun gun was used occurred during the drunken-driving arrest of a 38-year-old woman who had driven her car into a utility pole and fought four deputies as they tried to arrest her.

In another incident, Columbus Mosby, 51, of Edgewood said he could feel the electricity coursing through him when deputies used a stun gun on him in August. He had questioned why his 15-year-old was in handcuffs after receiving a littering citation. Mosby was arrested after he ignored an officer's command to keep quiet.

The shock "lifted me to the tip of my toes, and my wife was telling me, `Just lay down' -- I couldn't even lay down on the ground," Mosby said. He was shocked again when he didn't lie down, and he said the stun gun left a small scar on his back where the darts landed.

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 could continue to resist. The Taser X26 model, which Harford deputies use, shoots barbed darts attached to wires that pass electricity into a person's body.

Mosby disputes a report of the incident in which he was involved, which says he swung at an officer, and he adds that he was unarmed. "I don't understand it," he said. "I wasn't fighting them."

The agency's policy on when to use Tasers and stun devices does not describe the circumstances in which they should be used, saying only that they "may be utilized as an alternative to lethal force and shall be maintained consistent with the manufacturer's training and recommendations."

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