While the Mercer Island Police Department is the only one in western Washington that has not used Tasers before, the Island’s police officers on patrol will begin carrying a Taser come this fall.
On July 21, during the City Council’s first televised meeting on local Channel 21, the Council approved the purchase of 10 Tasers for Island cops to patrol the streets. Police plan to spend $18,000 on the equipment and training as a pilot project.
“This makes sure officers have all the tools to protect themselves and this Island,” Councilmember Steve Litzow said moments before the Council approved the expenditure.
According to Police Chief Ed Holmes, the decision to get Tasers was a matter of safety. He said that it protects both the officer and the subject from physical confrontations. It also prevents other violent means of force used by police to subdue an unruly citizen.
“The reason for Tasers is two-fold: for safety and savings,” said Mercer Island Police Sergeant Brian Noel, explaining why the department sought to carry the additional weapon.
Tasers fire two probes attached to insulated conductive wires with a maximum length of 35 feet. The electric shock is up to 50,000 volts. Since nearby police agencies have used the weapons before, Noel said Mercer Island will have the advantage of learning the proper protocols for deploying the device. According to Noel, officers will be instructed to take extra precautions before deploying a Taser on a youth, senior citizen or women who is pregnant. All Tasers will have attached cameras, which will film Taser incidents.
Police cited incidents and statistics that have become available as the use of Tasers has increased since the 1990s. They also showed video footage of the Taser camera when officers in Kansas subdued an emotionally disturbed man wielding a large knife.
Noel recalled a similar personal experience in which a Taser would have helped police and the suspect, he said. The officer described an incident when he was seconds from withdrawing his firearm on a large, drug-induced and drunk man who Noel had tried to subdue with his baton after the man had assaulted family members and crashed through the walls of an Island condominium. Noel said he had broken both of the man’s hands by hitting him with his baton in the fight, but could not get him to stop attacking.
“I feared for my life, but then Sergeant Hyatt came up and helped me. After a lengthy wrestling match, we were able to get him into handcuffs,” Noel said. “I am extremely confident that a Taser would have been my primary choice.
“It’s another layer of buffer between physical contact. I prefer to have another layer of buffer,” said Noel.
Police Detective Marc Marcroft said that during one documented six-month period in Cincinnati, Ohio, the use of Tasers prevented 12 suicides and were deployed 14 times when a sidearm would have otherwise been fired.
However, the use of Tasers has recently been controversial in Canada since the death of a Polish immigrant who died shortly after being Tasered by Canadian Mounted Police at Vancouver’s airport last year. One study released by a Canadian province suggested that police have become increasingly reliant on the device.
The police presentation also showed the video recording of Councilmembers Litzow and Mike Cero taking “the Taser for a ride” in April during a public safety committee meeting. Litzow and Cero publicly supported the use of a Taser by Island police after testing it.
“Believe me, it’s nothing I ever want to experience again,” Litzow said, who added that he believed Tasers were a better use of force than other options. The mayor agreed.
“In a perfect world, I’d rather see [police] throw away the guns and keep the Tasers,” said Mayor Jim Pearman. “I’d much rather have you pull out a Taser than pull out a revolver, and let’s hope it never gets to that level.”
The majority of the Council supported the request, which approved the purchase 4-1. Only Councilmember Dan Grausz opposed. Councilmember Mike Grady and Deputy Mayor El Jahncke were absent.
Grausz suggested that giving Tasers to the police would change the character of the Island. He said the last time that police came before the Council, they turned it down.
“The reasoning back then was that Mercer Island as a community maybe did not need Tasers,” Grausz said. “Even though other cities were electing to employ them, we on Mercer Island were a community that could do without them. This is, in some ways, one indication of the changing character of the community that will be unfortunate, as we are a community that doesn’t need the latest weaponry or a full set of force.”