Police chief wants approval for Tasers

McMahon to seek council action

January 24, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Howard County Police Chief William J. McMahon will ask the County Council next month to equip a small number of his officers with Tasers, hand-held stun guns that shoot probes into a person's skin and incapacitates for five seconds.

Before McMahon can launch a pilot program, the council must repeal a law banning the use of stun guns, a move that newly elected County Executive Ken Ulman said he supports.

Legislation is expected to be submitted tomorrow and voted on in March. The issue is likely to be one of the council's first major policy decisions since its election in November.

"Strict protocol would need to be developed and implemented for their use," Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, wrote in an e-mail, adding that she has not taken a final position on Tasers and wants a "deeper understanding" of the equipment.

High-profile instances of misuse of the stun guns around the country have provoked caution and scrutiny among policymakers.

A sample of media reports include a 6-year-old boy being shocked in a school office in Miami; a 75-year-old woman being stunned in a South Carolina nursing home; and an Orlando, Fla., police officer using a stun gun on a disruptive suspect who was chained to a hospital bed and could not pose a serious threat to the officer.

Cpl. Jason Baker, acting president of the Howard County Police Officers' Association, said that the threat of the painful device cowers many defiant suspects, reducing officers' overall use of force and causing fewer injuries.

For instance, a Taser International Inc. report summarizing data from the Cincinnati, Denver and Phoenix police departments detailed drastic drops - up to 80 percent - in suspect and officer injury rates.

But experts, such as Doug Ward of the Johns Hopkins University Public Safety Leadership Division, have said that little independent research into the medical safety of the devices exists.

One study that Taser officials promote in a news release and on a Web site is a peer-reviewed article in the journal Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology, which found an "extremely low" risk of the device inducing cardiac arrest and that the shocks could be "safely applied multiple times." Two of the four authors are Taser executives, The New York Times reported.

Because the gun's barbs are propelled with compressed nitrogen, Tasers are not defined as handguns and are not federally regulated.

As of August, Taser International, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company, faced about 50 personal-injury and product-liability lawsuits, according to The Arizona Republic. Also that month, it settled class-action lawsuits with shareholders for about $20 million after they alleged that the company had exaggerated the safety of its products. The settlement involved no admission of wrongdoing.

Last week, McMahon allowed himself to be stunned as two officers prevented him from collapsing and members of his citizens advisory council watched.

"In order for me to promote this as a safe and effective tool, I needed to subject myself to it," McMahon said.

If the council approves the devices, McMahon would lay out rules instructing officers when they would be permitted to use them. Some departments allow officers to shock people who are passively resisting, or people who are talking back, rather than fighting back.

The Maryland State Police, whose SWAT teams have had the guns since the mid-1990s but used them fewer than 10 times, place Tasers higher on its "use of force continuum" after pepper spray but before a baton.

Baker said that all forms of force have inherent risks - even pepper spray can cause a fatal allergic reaction. "I believe Tasers need to be used at the active-resistance level," he said. "Passive resistance is someone saying no. Active resistance is when someone says no, and when we go to grab them, they try to pull away or fight."

Amnesty International, a leading critic of Tasers, reported that 61 people died in the United States in 2005 after being shocked with the devices.

Most of those cases involved repeated shocks, according to the human rights organization. Most police agencies, however, have no ban on repeated use, and Baker, who works in the police division that researched the devices for McMahon, said one is not needed.

After the first shock, "if he wants to get up and continue fighting, then he's going to go down for another five seconds," said Herb Watchinski Jr., president of the Citizens' Advisory Council, a group of volunteers who advise McMahon. "Would I want to be hit with a second Tase, or 240 grains of lead? To me, if I was an officer in that kind of situation, weighing the risks of a second tase or 240 grains of lead, to me it's a no-brainer."

As with any weapon, Watchinski and McMahon said, effective training would prevent misuse. Watchinski said officers would be trained, for instance, not to stun someone on a roof or bridge or in an industrial complex where a suspect's collapse could cause injury.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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