States consider stun gun guidelines
The mounting controversy over stun guns from related deaths has prompted many state lawmakers and officials to propose guidelines for their use. Manufactured by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International, the weapons, known as Tasers, use compressed nitrogen to shoot two probes connected to insulated wire up to 25 feet. An electric charge of 0.0021 to 0.0036 amperes results in the temporary loss of a person’s neuromuscular control.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation that requires people wanting to buy Tasers to secure a criminal background check as if they were purchasing a firearm. Seven other states — Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin — and the District of Columbia already restrict Taser use by the public.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice Law Enforcement Standards Board also recently approved recommendations for statewide basic law enforcement training to begin in September. The training standards define “active resistance” — physical, non-compliant behavior — as the criterion for using stun guns. The definition typically prohibits use of the weapons in cases of verbal aggression, and against children, the elderly, and people engaging in civil disobedience or running away. They also include a model for differentiating between criminal behavior and behavioral illness with criminal features.
New Mexico Sen. Stuart Ingle, introduced legislation in 2005 that would define stun guns as lethal weapons because of the rising number of stun gun deaths. “There are different portions of the law that apply as far as penalties and misuse,” Ingle says. Although the bill died in the Judiciary Committee, he says it will be reintroduced next session.
The Alexandria, Va.-based International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has called for more study on stun guns’ value, says Albert Arena, project manager in the research directorate at IACP. He adds that 100,000 Tasers have been sold to civilians, and 133,000 have been sold to 7,000 law enforcement departments across the country. “We don’t think even with the 100-plus people who have died [after being stunned] since 2001 there is enough information to say pull them back right now,” he says. The non-profit organization did, however, release “Electro-Muscular Disruption Technology: A Nine Step Strategy For Effective Deployment” in April 2005, which provides a protocol for law enforcement using stun guns as a less-lethal force option that includes tracking each time the weapon is deployed. The Department of Justice also is currently considering national standards, Arena says.
Despite criticism, Tasers have benefits, including putting a distance between the arresting officer and the suspect. “Stunning causes pain, and tasing is incapacitating,” Arena says. “The main reason [to deploy a Taser] is that there are so many instances when an officer uses a baton, and the suspect, officer and bystanders can get hurt.” Victoria, Texas, Police Department Detective Tom Copeland agrees. “We have 10 [Tasers] on the streets, and we’re trying to pick up another 10. As a form of non-lethal force, they are better than having officers have to fight people to take them into custody without injuring them or the officers.” Victoria, with a population of 100,000, deployed Tasers in January 2005 and requires officers to gain an initial certification followed by an annual refresher course.
The Victoria Police Department has other controls, as well. In addition to serial numbers on the Taser cartridges, each weapon has a “tattle tale” in it. Information about who used a weapon, when and how many times can be easily downloaded. “Could you abuse the use of it? Yes. Would you be caught? Absolutely,” Copeland says.
Copeland volunteers to be tased each time he gives a certification course and says the power is less than one half the power of a defibrillator. He is adamant that Tasers do not kill. “What kills people when they’re tased is the cocaine or PCP they’re on,” he says.