Boston — When trying to subdue unruly suspects, police traditionally have had few weapons to choose from besides a pistol and a night stick. So when devices recently emerged that would allow them to disable someone with a ``harmless'' electrical shock, many law-enforcement agencies quickly added the weapons to their arsenals.
Now, however, these nonlethal weapons -- most notably stun guns -- are stirring concern nationwide amid questions over their safety and potential for misuse.
The controversy comes at a time when the devices are gaining in popularity among police as well as private citizens, who see them as a less frightening alternative to a handgun.
Electric shock weapons are not completely new to police barracks. Devices of one form or another have been in use for at least 10 years. But while some controversy has surrounded their use from the start, it hasn't reached highly visible proportions until recently.
The trigger for much of this concern was the indictment two weeks ago of five New York City police officers for allegedly using a stun gun to assault prisoners in their custody.
But this hasn't been the only incident involving alleged misuse of the weapons. In San Antonio a deputy sheriff was sentenced to two years probation recently for using a stun gun to shock a handcuffed prisoner. In Los Angeles, the county coroner is investigating the recent death of a suspected drug user who had been zapped several times with a similar weapon. In this case, however, authorities suspect that the drug PCP and not the gun was the cause of death.
Last month in Dallas, it wasn't the police but a pair of robbers who used a stun gun to immobilize a supermarket clerk. Afterward, however, the clerk's father said he was ``thankful'' the criminals had used it instead of the pistol they had at the time.
Despite the stun gun's usually being a harmless weapon, however, it is the potential for just this kind of abuse that worries some critics. Several cities have banned stun guns or limited them to police use. They join a roster of states -- North Dakota, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Hawaii -- where restrictions on electrical weapons are in place.
The Nova XR-5000 stun gun is only one of several shocking devices on the market, although it is one of the most recent and most popular. Manufactured by Nova Technologies in Austin, Texas, the pocket-size device looks like a small walkie-talkie. When pressed against the body, it sends out 50,000 volts of electricity at very low amperage that causes a person to lose voluntary muscular control and collapse.
The only lasting effect, the company claims, is a pair of red marks resembling mosquito bites where two prongs make contact. Some 300 police agencies have bought stun guns since they went on the market two years ago. Recently, sales have been booming among private citizens -- particularly women seeking protection.
A chief rival to the Nova gun is the ``taser.'' In use for 10 years now, it fires electrically charged darts attached to wires. Because it can be used at a distance, some police prefer the weapon when dealing with particularly violent drug users or mental patients. Some 400 police agencies have bought them. The weapon is considered a firearm, though, since it shoots darts. Thus its sale is somewhat restricted by federal law. Another weapon -- the ``Source'' -- is a flashlight that produces a shock through two prongs in the handle.
Many police say stun guns are a much less menacing weapon than guns and night sticks, or even, usually, fists and Chemical Mace. ``We'd like to think of ourselves as not needing these devices,'' says Jim Fyfe, a senior fellow at the Police Foundation, a think tank. ``But we do. There is a valid place for them.''
Not everyone is enamored with them, however, including some police officials. A few departments stopped using stun guns after some wouldn't fire. Cases have cropped up where large suspects stayed on their feet even after being zapped. Safety is another concern.
Other critics argue that it is the nondangerous aspect of the weapons that is the problem: Police may use a weapon more often that does virtually no visible harm to someone. Private citizens, too -- including criminals -- may be tempted to use them for offensive purposes. ``It raises the specter of everyone walking around with stun guns and zapping each other,'' says Joseph Sandoval, a criminologist at Denver's Metropolitan State College.
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