Boyle, Liberty officers still believe in Tasers

December 02, 2004|TODD KLEFFMAN

As questions are being raised about the safety and misuse of Taser stun guns, local law enforcement agencies that have the weapons believe they provide answers in potentially dangerous situations.

"We always try to use the least lethal method, but we're a small department, understaffed, and if you're out in a holler somewhere dealing with someone on narcotics, your backup may be 30 minutes away," said Boyle County Deputy Brian Wofford. "It can put you in a bad spot sometimes. (A Taser) is a deterrent just having it on our belts because people have seen it on "Cops" and know what it can do."

In a study released Tuesday, Amnesty International said that 74 people have died over the past four years after being shocked by Tasers, which produce a short, 50,000-volt jolt to temporarily paralyze a target. Such shocks could induce cardiac arrest, and the report also raises concerns about the weapons being used inappropriately by police on children, the mentally ill and the elderly.


"Not only do we not know the impact of these weapons on human beings under various conditions, we are also concerned about the gratuitous use of these weapons," said Gerald Le Melle, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Amnesty, the Defense Department and some health professionals are calling for more scientific studies to determine if the devices are safe as Tasers become more popular with police departments, corrections officers and the military. More than 6,000 police agencies and the U.S military use the stun guns, which were introduced in the 1970s and are now being marketed to consumers.

All of the officers have received a jolt

The Boyle County Sheriff's Department and the Liberty Police Department purchased Tasers this year and both are convinced the weapons are safe and provide officers with another tool to diffuse situations that could become deadly. All of the officers at the two departments have been certified to use Tasers, and all of them have received a jolt from the device as part of their training.

"I don't feel like they'll hurt you one way or the other. You definitely feel and you tingle for a few minutes, but then it's over," said Liberty Police Chief Ron Whited. "If you use them responsibly, there shouldn't be any problems. It's not the device itself, it's how they are being used in some cases that is the problem."

Liberty police received three Tasers in April but have yet to use one in the line of duty, Whited said. But if the department had Tasers available the year before, when former officer Danny Cook shot and killed Leon Brown while responding to a domestic violence call, the weapon likely would have prevented the tragedy, Whited said.

While trying to subdue a resisting Brown, Cook twice sprayed chemical spray to no effect. Cook said he shot Brown in the chest at close range after Brown made a sudden movement toward him. A jolt from a Taser may have convinced Brown to quit resisting before Cook used deadly force, Whited said. "That was one situation where a Taser should have worked," the chief said.

Cook was charged with reckless homicide but later acquitted. A $16 million civil lawsuit filed against the city by members of Brown's family is still pending.

Cutting down on excessive force lawsuits, along with increased officer safety and less harm to suspects who resist being taken into custody are benefits the Tasers can provide to a department, Whited said.

Boyle deputies have only had to use Taser once

Boyle deputies were equipped with Tasers in August and have only used them on one occasion. That was three weeks ago near Parksville, when Wofford attempted to serve a felony warrant related to methamphetamine production on a man who wasn't ready to go to jail.

"We were talking and he said he was going to turn himself in but wanted to spend Christmas with his kids first," Wofford said. "As I was trying to place handcuffs on him, he took off. I tackled him and we were rolling around on the ground. He was aggressively resisting and trying to fight."

Wofford said he issued a three-second jolt to the man's buttocks and the scuffle quickly ended. "That was enough to make him stop and comply and let us put the cuffs on," Wofford said. "He suffered no damage."

Wofford said there have been other situations where suspects willingly complied with deputies' commands after noticing a Taser on their belts. "They call it 'The Chair' and they don't want any part of it," he said. "It short-circuits your motor skills. Your muscles are shaking. It's like being hit with an electric sledge hammer. It's painful at the time."

Since getting the Tasers four months ago, Wofford said the department has received several calls from other departments and jails in the area inquiring about how well the devices work. Wofford tells them they are "a great tool."

Harrodsburg Police Chief Ernie Kelty said his department doesn't have the stun guns, mostly because of their expense rather than concerns over safety. The devices cost about $800 apiece. Harrodsburg officers carry chemical spray and expandable batons to subdue resisting suspects.

"I am aware of some of the concerns about them and, if we were going to carry them, I'd want to investigate them more" Kelty said. "But the departments I've talked to are pleased with them and there used to be the same questions and concerns raised about pepper spray. If our budget situation ever allowed us to afford them, we'd definitely look into it."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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