Taser policy sparks worry

2 councilwomen ask police chief to tighten usage rules in draft

February 28, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Concerned about reports suggesting shocks from hand-held stun guns can contribute to deaths, some members of the Howard County Council suggested yesterday that the police chief tighten a draft policy governing the use of Tasers, if the newly elected body is to approve them.

The stun guns shoot electric probes into the skin and incapacitate a person for five seconds. Police Chief William J. McMahon wants the law banning the use of "electronic weapons" in the county to include an exemption for public safety officers, including police, sheriffs and corrections officers.

The Taser issue is the council's first major policy decision since its election in November. A vote is scheduled for Monday.

In making his case, McMahon said that Tasers pose less danger to officers and suspects than other weapons in the officers' arsenal. He compared the council's decision on Tasers to ones made by the Food and Drug Administration when it approves drugs.

"The FDA rarely approves a drug that has no risks," McMahon said. "They approve drugs when the risks are far outweighed by the potential benefits."

Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, said during yesterday's council work session that she wanted to know more about when and how the weapons would be used before supporting the legislation.

In comparing the chief's draft Taser policy with a model policy written by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Watson asked why the county's omitted any restrictions or guidance on using the device multiple times on one person. The county's policy also lacked similar provisions on stunning children or the elderly.

Counciwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, also raised a distinction between stunning a person whom police were trying to arrest versus stunning a suspect in custody. Terrasa said she had greater concerns with the latter.

"I'd like to support them in their efforts to protect us," Terrasa said. "But I'm uncomfortable with the legislation as it is. If they want my support, they need to narrow the policy in some way."

Watson also pointed out that the chief's policy includes an exception that permits officers to stun someone in the face of passive resistance or when someone curses at an officer or verbally refuses to comply with an order.

Some departments, including the Maryland State Police, permit Tasers to be used only when a trooper encounters active resistance, or when a suspect pushes away an officer's hand or throws a punch.

"Officers may apply discretion in deploying Tasers at the passive resistance level when they can articulate the justification (e.g. known police fighter, disparity in size relative to skill level, prior knowledge of suspect)," according to McMahon's draft policy, which Watson read to the council.

McMahon said that he would be willing to address some of the concerns of Watson and Terrasa, but the policy needed to give officers enough flexibility to deal with unforeseen circumstances.

Already, McMahon said, the policy generally prohibits an officer from stunning someone in handcuffs, around water or flammable materials, and when a person's fall from the shock could result in an injury.

A confrontation can "cross the line [from passive resistance to violence] so quickly and with so little notice," McMahon said. Some limitations "could take away a bona fide reason" for a Taser's use.

If the council approves the legislation, McMahon has said that initially a small group of hand-selected police officers would get the devices and training as part of a six-month pilot program.

However, the bill before the council, introduced by County Executive Ken Ulman, does not authorize a trial or study. Instead, it permits a carte blanche exception for public safety agencies to purchase the weapon.

"We have an incredibly professional Police Department," Watson said. "But if our policies don't utilize best practices, we're setting ourselves up for conflict in the future."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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