Police stun guns pack volts - and debate

Tasers help cities reduce fatal shootings, but questions persist about their safety.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Police departments across the country are increasingly turning to a new form of stun gun to decrease the numbers of fatal shootings.

In many cases, the experiment has been a huge success. Miami and Seattle, for instance, last year recorded no fatal officer shootings for the first time in more than a decade.

But as cities increase their use of Tasers, questions are mounting about their misuse. And critics have been calling for independent tests to determine the health risks.

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Recently, the Houston Police Department announced that it wants every officer on the force to carry a Taser, making it the nation's largest buyer of the stun guns. Houston's new police chief, Harold Hurtt, is a big advocate.

While he was the chief in Phoenix, he began arming his officers with the stun guns after a report showed residents in that city were more likely to be shot by a police officer than in any other city. He credits the 31 percent drop in Phoenix's fatal shootings in 2003 in part to Tasers, and has convinced Houston Mayor Bill White to put $3.2 million into buying stun guns.

Police agencies began buying the stun guns in large quantities in 1999 and again in 2003 when the company reduced the product's size and weight. They are now used in 5,400 police departments across the country and are spreading into the US military. Two weeks ago, Taser International was awarded a $1.8 million contract to supply the stun guns to the military.

"They are changing policing the way the walkie-talkie changed policing in the 1960s and '70s," asserts Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

How stun guns work

Resembling a small pistol, the stun guns use nitrogen cartridges to propel darts into the body, delivering a 50,000-volt shock. The shock, lasting several seconds, immobilizes a person, allowing officers to take control of the situation.

But not everyone is convinced of their benefits. Amnesty International has called for a moratorium on Taser use until tests can be done to determine their safety. Nationwide, more than 50 people have died after being stunned by Tasers since 1999, though the company says no medical examiner has ruled that its product was the cause. "We applaud cities' efforts to reduce the number of police shootings, but we want to make certain that the solution being proposed is the appropriate one," says William Schulz of Amnesty International USA.

He also says there need to be uniform rules governing Taser use. It's currently up to each police department to set guidelines - something that varies from agency to agency. "Unlike batons, which can leave a bruise, or guns, which can leave a wound, these devises can be misused without detection," says Dr. Schulz.

The Kansas City Police Department, for instance, is rethinking when officers can use Tasers after an elderly woman was zapped in an altercation with police over a honking horn. The department's policy states that Tasers can be used on subjects who display "passive resistance" - those who don't respond to verbal commands but are not physically interfering with an officer. Denver and Portland, Ore., have similar policies. Seattle's is more restrictive: It doesn't allow Taser use until someone is combative and trying to injure an officer.

"What's happening is law-enforcement officers have started relying on Tasers rather than using the 'soft hands' approach," says Millard Farmer, a lawyer in Atlanta.

His client, Stacy Allen Draper, was shocked by a sheriff's deputy in Coweta County, Ga., on July 19, 2001, during a traffic stop. He sued the sheriff deputy for illegal arrest and excessive use of force, but the case was recently dismissed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled there was no violation of his federal constitutional rights.

A videotape provided by Mr. Farmer shows Mr. Draper being stunned, after a short squabble, even before he is told to calm down or put his hands up. "It came without any warning," says Draper, a truck driver from Arlington, Texas. "I thought I was shot with a gun."

Draper, an ex-military police officer, says he has no qualms about Tasers being used on violent criminals and thinks they are a good addition to an officer's arsenal, "but you can't just pull out a Taser because you get mad."

Like Schulz, he and Farmer believe there need to be strict regulations on their use. In the past nine months, five people in Georgia alone have died after being shot with a Taser. Farmer says he has even heard they're being used to quiet people in "drunk tanks." "Sure, it's better to use Tasers than to use a gun," he says. "You can't get away with killing people. But you can get away with using it in a very vindictive way."

A case in Las Vegas

Just last month, a grand jury in Las Vegas ruled that a Taser played a role in the February death of a man on drugs - the first such ruling. William Lomax was zapped seven times in about 10 minutes, and was finally handcuffed and placed on a stretcher. He died in the hospital a day later. In the coroner's report, the medical examiner determined that Mr. Lomax had died as a result of cardiac arrest during restraint. He said the Taser contributed to his death, though it wasn't the cause of it. "Legally, it was ruled a non-Taser death," notes Mr. Tuttle.

He admits the public outcry over stun guns is growing, but says the problem is a lack of education. He likens it to the worries about pepper spray when police first began using it, "and eventually we learned that these aren't dangerous products at all," says Tuttle.

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