TASER: Shock to the system

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 14, 2007

Among the controversy in law enforcement today, one of them is the use of TASERs by police forces around the country.

Law enforcement agencies say they are needed to defuse potentially violent or dangerous situations. Groups like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union have called them to be banned after suspects died from their use.

The sci-fi gun

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The TASER has its roots in early 20th Century science fiction. The acronym stands for the Thomas A Swift Electric Rifle, a reference to Tom Swift, a young genius hero of more than 100 sci-fi books who created many fantastic machines during his adventures.

A TASER is a non-lethal, gun-shaped device that shoots two metal prongs connected to copper wires into a suspect. The TASER uses the copper wires to generate a 50,000 volt, low amperage electrical current into a person’s muscles and stops voluntary movement. The device turns off after five seconds.

The controversy

The use of TASERS has been controversial from the start. Law agencies say the use it to diffuse situations while opponents say that sometimes officers overuse the device.

The most recent media frenzy is over an Ohio woman who was TASERed repeatedly by an officer. The whole arrest was captured by a camera in a police cruiser.

Late night on Sept. 2, police were called to a bar in Warren about an unruly woman who had gotten into a disagreement with the bartender. When Heidi Gill, 38, refused to listen to police officers, including hiding in a car that wasn’t hers and trying to kick out the police car window, Officer Rich Kovach used the TASER on her. Kovach reported that he TASERed her seven times but Gill said she had three dozen burn marks on her.

Gill was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, vehicle trespass for getting into a car that wasn’t hers and assault on a police officer. Kovach is on paid administrative leave while the incident is investigated.

A call for a review

The Ohio branch of the American Civil Liberties Union would like to see the use of TASERs to be reviewed until more studies are done about the effects of the device.

Chris Link, the executive director of the Ohio UCLA, said they see the TASER as one of a whole variety law enforcement needs to respond to a suspect’s behavior.

“Each one of those ways, whether it is the use of a club, a gun or a TASER, should have a use of force policy procedure,” she said. “Officers need to be trained carefully on each of those techniques.”

Link said the Ohio ACLU is not involved in the Warren TASERing case and she didn’t want to comment on the case itself but she does find the circumstances fishy.

“Because you don’t stand and TASER someone because they are obnoxious,” she said. “The use of force is supposed to match the threat posed by the bad person.”

She said TASERs are life threatening under some circumstances.

“Maybe not on the first zap, maybe not on a healthy 20-year-old male but certainly there are a collection of incidents of people dieing after being TASERed,” she said. “We have had a number of people in Ohio that have died after being TASERed, especially if they are dealing with people who are under the influence of drugs. The TASER has a synergistic effect with say, crystal meth, and has caused heart failure.”

She said society puts a lot of restraint of officers to not use to much force on suspects.

Local policey

In Lawrence County, officers have to go through state-certified training before they are issued a TASER. And part of that training is the officer gets TASERed.

Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton said he has 12 officers who are assigned TASERs, which is about half of the staff’s certified peace officers.

Deputies got TASERs three years ago.

“It just gives another opportunity to control a violent situation by non-lethal force,” Sexton said. “We have used them. Although sometimes they aren’t as effective as one would hope.”

Sexton said that his officers have a three and half page TASER policy guide they have to follow.

“If a TASER is used, any time we feel it is used unnecessarily, there would be an internal investigation,” he said. “Fortunately, we have never had to do that. It is not often we use the TASER.”

Sexton said that most of the time a TASER is used, the suspect usually complies with an officer’s orders after a single use.

“Sometimes just the threat of TASER being used will make them comply,” he said.

Each TASER has a chip that shows when, how many times and how long it was used.

“I think that is just another check and balance,” Sexton said, adding that most officers used the device according to their department’s policy.

Sexton said members of the public are attacking the TASER because they sometimes don’t understand the situation. He added that the police are called on to deal with violent or intoxicated people without harming them or the officer.

“According to the manufacturer, TASER International, it has been proven to reduce injuries to officers,” Sexton said. He added that with new technology such as cell phone cameras, police are often under more of a microscope than they were twenty years ago.

“The number of times that TASERs are used is minute versus the number of calls officers go on,” Sexton said. He added that there are misconceptions about TASERS. “It is supposed to temporarily incapacitate a suspect. It doesn’t cause permanent damage.”

Sexton said the use of a TASER is especially necessary in a place like Lawrence County.

“We have situations where a deputy will respond to a call about a violent individual and his nearest backup is twenty minutes away,” he said. “It might be an option for him to use the TASER to get the upper hand in the situation.”

Ironton Police Chief Jim Carey was not available for comment.