Police department ponders use of Tasers

By Ruth Longoria

Don't be shocked if Tasers become the next weapon of choice for Island police. During a public safety meeting April 26 between law enforcement, city staff and some City Councilmembers, Island police presented a case for purchasing the somewhat controversial alternative to lethal force.

However, there are still too many unanswered questions and research to be done about Tasers before law enforcement here will be ready to proceed with any plan for purchasing Tasers. Before that, police will need to take a much more detailed presentation to the City Council, Commander Ed Holmes said a few days after the meeting.

``Those at the meeting had a lot of questions and we also formulated a lot of questions from what was said,'' Holmes said. ``I think there are just too many questions, like `is there a problem?' and `what are we trying to fix?' in order to know if there is a need for (Tasers) here on the Island.''

A Taser is a handheld electronic device that propels a pair of barbed darts -- similar to small fish hooks -- which are attached to high-voltage insulated wires, capable of delivering 50,000 volts of electricity. The darts attach to the suspect's clothing -- or skin -- and discharge a metered, pulse of current throughout the body, which overwhelms the central nervous system and causes severe loss of motor control.

Police officers sometimes prefer having the option of using Tasers over potentially lethal methods, such as handguns, or less effective methods of control, such as pepper spray or physical force. In addition to lengthening the time the subject is affected, Tasers are more useful to officers because they only affect the person being Tased.

``With pepper spray you have to make sure you are downwind because there's blowback and you always get contaminated,'' said officer Brian Noel, who assisted Holmes in the presentation.

Police are required to follow a detailed protocol in using force to prevent, control, apprehend or arrest a person for a suspected crime. That order is outlined in what's called the ``Confrontational Force Continuum.'' The continuum describes a range of actions to be used to defuse a situation. They range from officer presence and verbal commands to ``soft empty hand,'' meaning hand motions or movements or handcuffing a suspect.

If the need arises, officers can move to other levels, or continuums, such as use of aerosol subject restraints, hard empty hand, impact weapons (such as Tasers), or lethal force. An officer can enter or leave that force continuum at any time, depending on the situation at hand, Noel said.

Although law enforcement and Taser manufacturers state that no deaths have been caused by Tasers, there have been incidents in which suspects have died in connection with being Tased.

In an incident in Olympia in 2002, a shoplifter who struggled with a security guard at a local grocery store was shot by police with a Taser an undisclosed number of times. The suspect died after being handcuffed and placed in a police patrol car. His death was later attributed to diabetes and obesity, which were said to be factors in the suspect's fatal heart attack.

Similar cases have been reported across the country throughout the past 35 years since Tasers were first introduced.

At the meeting, Mayor Alan Merkle said he'd like to hear more about facts and statistics involved.

``I think we need to be ready to have a discussion,'' Merkle said. ``And then look at statistics and why there is a controversy at all.''

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