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Sunday, February 08, 2009

EDITORIAL: Patterns of force

February 8, 2009
News Herald

The advantage Tasers have over traditional firearms - their being less lethal - can also be one of their biggest drawbacks.

It's not hard to see why Tasers are now used by more than 12,000 police agencies across the country, including in Bay County. Instead of firing bullets, these plastic guns deliver a jolt of electric current - up to 50,000 volts - that is designed to briefly incapacitate a target without endangering his life. No blood is spilled, no vital organs are supposed to be damaged. The weapon is seen as a safer, humane alternative to traditional firearms.

However, when force becomes less dangerous to apply, it is more likely to be used, such as in situations which might not call for such action. A law-enforcement officer who would never draw his firearm to defuse conflict might be more susceptible to deploying his Taser knowing the risks of serious injury were much lower, even though the confrontation could be resolved with even less force than electro-shock.

Indeed, there are numerous anecdotes of questionable tasings. In 2005 alone in Florida, police zapped a 6-year-old boy, a fleeing 12-year-old girl who was allegedly drunk, a 14-year-old girl who was sitting in the back of a squad car and a man in a wheelchair who was brandishing a pair of scissors. Do unarmed children and the disabled really constitute severe threats to police that warrant their being tased? More likely, officers were exasperated and frustrated with uncooperative suspects.

Just because force is not lethal does not mean it should be applied liberally. Getting tased might not be like getting shot with a bullet or beaten with a nightstick, but it's anything but routine. Just ask any law-enforcement officer who has received a jolt in training (which has become standard procedure in many agencies). It makes an impression. Of course, that's the point of putting the officers through it - so they know what they're delivering and thus will consider using it sparingly.

Nevetheless, there is growing evidence that Tasers aren't as benign as some of their supporters claim. Since 2001, more than 300 people have died after being tased. That's a high price to pay for what often is not a life-and-death situation. According to Amnesty International, about 80 percent of all those who have been tased were unarmed and 36 percent were zapped for verbal non-compliance. Only 3 percent of the cases involved "deadly assault."

A recent study by a Montreal biomedical engineer and a U.S. defense contractor at the request of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. concluded that Tasers can fire more electricity than their manufactuer, Taser International, says is possible. The study says that raises the risk of cardiac arrest as much as 50 percent in some people. Even stun guns firing at their expected electrical levels carry some risk of inducing a heart attack.

Clearly, though, Tasers have a place in law enforcement if employed judiciously. They can save officers' lives without putting civilians' at as high a risk as if they were shot. The key is not to go around zapping everyone who initially resists or mouths off to a cop - situations where force normally would not be used.

It's good to see that local law enforcement agencies have tightened rules for Taser usage. Sheriff Frank McKeithen told The News Herald's Jon Miltmore that he was not satisified with the BCSO's policy and had it rewritten so it's harder to justify using the weapon. The Panama City Police Department in 2006 similarly moved Tasers further down its "use-of-force continuum" scale. Beach police adopted the stun guns just last year.

Police force always should be applied as a last resort, not a first response, regardless of its level of lethality. Just because chemical sprays, Tasers and beanbag guns, to name a few, are less dangerous than bullets shouldn't mean they are substitutes for other methods of routine crowd control or subduing suspects. There are no shortcuts to good police work.

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