More Tasers in use

After successful trial, county nearly doubles the number being carried by officers

December 14, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

County police have nearly doubled the number of Tasers carried by officers after finding that a six-month pilot project for the device resulted in no serious injuries to suspects and a decrease in officer injuries during arrest attempts.

The trial period, which lasted from July 2007 to January 2008, showed drops in officer injuries, use of force and complaints about use of force, said Maj. Merritt Bender, deputy chief of investigations and special operations.

Since officers in Howard began using the devices in July, there have been no serious injuries to officers or suspects, said Bender, who oversees the Taser program. The department has encountered no complaints from suspects or had to launch any internal investigations, said Sherry Llewellyn, police spokeswoman.

"The areas we were hoping it would have a positive effect on, it had a positive effect on," Bender said.

Since the pilot program ended in January, the department has increased its Taser stockpile from 25 to 43, Bender said. To date, there have been 20 discharges (when the Taser is used) and 23 deployments (when an officer draws the device and points it at the suspect).

That leads police to the conclusion that more than half of the time the Tasers have been drawn, the suspects complied before officers had to use them, resulting in no injuries to them or the officers.

"We were getting compliance with less physical aggression," he said.

A Taser is an example of a conducted energy device that a growing number of police departments around the country have begun using as a less-lethal alternative for apprehending suspects. The device works by firing probes from the gun onto a person. The probes are connected to the device, which sends an electrical jolt that causes a person to immediately lose neuromuscular control.

TX26, the model used by Howard and many other police agencies, delivers 50,000 volts. But the harmful components of the electricity delivered are less than that of a Christmas tree light bulb, Bender said.

A National Institute of Justice report says more than a quarter-million Tasers or similar devices are used in law enforcement agencies nationwide, but the weapons have drawn criticism over a suspected link to deaths of people who have used drugs before being stunned or had heart conditions. In Maryland, at least four people died last year after the weapon was used on them.

Amnesty International, a human rights organization that has been tracking Taser deaths since 2001, has expressed concerns over the device. Dalia Hashad, the group's director of the USA program, said more research is needed on Tasers' effects on vulnerable populations, including those under the influence of narcotics and the mentally ill. She added that the lack of continuity among police departments about the device's level of force often makes them more likely to be abused.

"The fact that it's all over the place on the use-of-force continuum ... shows there's no consensus about when to use the weapon," Hashad said.

In hopes of preventing injuries and deaths, Howard police have implemented strict policies for using the devices, Bender said. Officers can draw the devices when suspects show physical resistance. Exceptions include when a suspect is markedly larger than the officer or when the suspect has a known history of resisting arrest, Bender said.

In a recent New York case, a suspect fell from a ledge and died after being stunned. Howard officers are trained not to use a Taser when a suspect is handcuffed, in control of a vehicle or motorcycle, if an explosive device may be present, or if the person could fall. Officers are required to give a verbal warning before shooting. Anyone who has been "tased" must be taken to a hospital by ambulance and examined, Bender said.

"We have the benefit of others' experience," Llewellyn said.

During the pilot program, each of the department's 20 patrol squads had a Taser, Bender said. Others were distributed to the special-assignments squads, such as street drugs and warrants units. Officers drew the weapons 15 times and discharged them seven times. In all of the cases, the suspect had threatened to hurt someone, and some were armed with weapons, Bender said.

The department has trained about 10 backup officers, who are able to use the Tasers if the primary operators are not working. Supervisors checked personnel and work histories of officers who requested the devices. Bender said the officers chosen are the "most reliable with proven track records."

Since the pilot program ended, the department has bought a training suit that allows officers to practice aiming the device at a running or moving subject. Other training includes effective ways to aim, and the effects of a suspect's thick, heaving clothing.

For now, the department is satisfied with the number of officers using Tasers and has no plans to expand the program further in the near future, Bender said.

"We're not seeing a lot of cases where they're calling for them and not having them readily available," he said.

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