Starting tomorrow, people trying to fight off Howard County police should beware. If a red laser dot appears on your chest, you might get zapped with a Taser, a stun gun that delivers a knee-buckling jolt that may be linked to deaths.
A small fraction of the county's force - 25 officers - will arm themselves with the devices. The County Council voted, 4-1, to approve the deployment in March. "After a certain time period, the bad guys will know Tasers," said Sgt. Bob Wagner, who helped run eight-hour training sessions last week for the officers carrying the weapons. "When they see that laser dot on them, they're going to comply a lot quicker."
That's exactly what happened in Hanover last month. A man suspected of having psychiatric problems dropped a knife after Anne Arundel police officers beamed the laser on him and threatened to discharge the jolt.
The goal of the half-pound devices is to reduce injuries among officers and suspects.
But four people in Maryland have died after shocks this year. Whether the Taser caused the deaths is difficult to determine.
State medical examiners across the country have attributed many post-stun deaths to "excited delirium," a relatively recent medical theory.
In these cases, an irregular heartbeat triggers the death, but several factors, including police restraint, cause the arrhythmia, said the state's chief medical director, Dr. David R. Fowler.
In almost all cases, the deceased was either using an illegal stimulant, such as cocaine or PCP, at the time of the death or had a mental illness. The person is "very excited or acting in a bizarre way," Fowler said.
"They get themselves into a situation where their behavior attracts attention, and police are called," he said. "At some point, they do not comply with police requests, and police need to restrain them by physical force."
Once a suspect has been restrained, after being stunned or pepper-sprayed or tackled, the suspect's adrenaline continues to surge, Fowler said.
"The person goes into complete panic. The adrenaline continues to increase, and it causes a fatal cardiac arrhythmia," he said. "Have you ever heard stories of children catching a bird or a mouse, only to have it die in their hands? We've often wondered whether `excited delirium' is the human equivalent of that - of literally being scared to death."
Fowler said medical ethics prevent doctors from re-creating the conditions needed to prove this theory. He also said that police cadets across the country are stunned routinely during training without any adverse effects.
"For a young, healthy 18- to 24-year-old, which is the typical profile of a police recruit, Tasers are entirely safe," Fowler said. "How that translates to a 50-year-old person with a pre-existing heart condition, there's a question there. There are so many variables. All I can say for sure is that resisting arrest is probably not good for your health."
Given the widespread media attention paid to these deaths, Wagner said, Howard County has taken precautions. With a few exceptions, police are not allowed to trigger the stun guns unless faced with active or violent resistance - someone moving away from officers or trying to injure them.
In comparison, some police departments allow officers to stun people for talking back, called passive resistance. When faced with verbal assaults, Howard County officers can use pepper spray but generally cannot stun someone.
Wagner said the 25 Howard County officers selected to carry Tasers have been stunned - both to reduce anxiety when first using them on the street and to gain credibility on the witness stand when describing a situation.
The officers will call for emergency medical personnel every time a stun gun is used. Wagner and his team has briefed emergency room personnel at Howard County General Hospital, firefighters and intake officials at the county detention center on what to expect.
Emergency room personnel, for instance, need to know that some subjects will arrive at the hospital with the stun gun's two electric probes lodged in their skin. Detention center staff members will monitor for two hours jailed suspects on whom the devices have been used recently, Wagner said.
The Police Department's internal affairs unit will track officers' Taser use. Howard County police, however, opted against attaching $400 video cameras to the guns.