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Tale of the Taser

By Stephanie Dunlap · December 1st, 2004 · All The News That Fits
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Assaults on officers, injuries to prisoners and use of chemical irritant have plummeted since the Cincinnati Police Department issued Tasers to its entire force, police told city council's Law and Public Safety Committee Nov. 23.

City council voted in January to spend about $1 million on the stun guns. The purchase followed the death of Nathaniel Jones, who suffocated while handcuffed. Police had struck him dozens of times with nightsticks before subduing him. The coroner ruled the death a homicide but noted Jones was high on PCP.

The advantage of Tasers is that they don't rely on pain for compliance. That means that, unlike chemical sprays, their effects can't be overridden by pain-killing PCP or by a suspect who's "focus combative," according to Lt. Col. Richard Janke. The Tasers deliver electric shocks that overwhelm the central nervous system and freeze all muscles for about five seconds.

"No doubt it's a more human tool to use on a person to achieve compliance," Janke said.

Between Jan. 4 and Sept. 30, Cincinnati Police used Tasers in 505 separate incidents, Janke said. Suspects then complied in 452 cases. Only one shock each was necessary to quiet 274 Taser victims, or 61 percent; two shocks for 22 percent. Three citizens received more than four of the five-second shocks. Seventy-eight percent of those on whom Tasers were used were African Americans.

In 58 cases, "red-dot compliance" -- just using a Taser's red sighting laser -- did the trick, Janke said.

Every person hit with a Taser gets a medical examination. Every deployment is investigated by supervisors, district or section commanders and bureau commanders, as well as by the inspections section, Janke said.

Tasers come early in the police department's use-of-force continuum, he said, because they can be used from a distance and leave no lasting effects.

The first level of force on that continuum is an officer's mere presence, which can be a deterrent in itself. Officers then issue commands and warnings. If suspects still won't comply, police may resort to Tasers, only issuing a warning if there's time.

Janke said investigations have found no inappropriate use of a Taser. In fact, because Tasers allow police to stand up to 21 feet away, officers have more reaction time, which leads to better decision-making, he said.

Councilman John Cranley sees Tasers as a boon to police-community relations.

"I think it's human nature that, if it's safer to make that contact, it's also going to increase greater interaction," he said. "I think the Taser has encouraged more interaction between police and criminal activity, and I think we are in desperate need of that."

This runs contrary to rumblings, especially in African-American communities, that police are too quick to whip out their Tasers instead of first engaging suspects verbally.

Councilman Christopher Smitherman asked Janke about a recent incident in which a handcuffed woman's pants fell while police arrested her. Talk show host Lincoln Ware of WDBZ (1230 AM) joined a crowd at the scene and offered officers something to cover the woman. An officer, in turn, offered to use a Taser on Ware.

Janke declined to comment on the incident, saying it was still under investigation.

Critics also say there haven't been enough studies to ensure the devices are safe. Amnesty International, which has long urged a moratorium, has scheduled the release of an extensive report for Nov. 30.

"I think it's pretty conclusive, though, at this point, Mr. Smitherman, that the Taser doesn't cause death," Janke said. "It's a nonlethal tool."

The New York Times reported Nov. 26 that Taser International misrepresented the results of a government study about Tasers' safety and that since 2001 more than 70 people have died after Taser shocks. Those deaths were related to preexisting medical problems, Janke said.



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