As Shocks Replace Police Bullets,
Deaths Drop but Questions Arise.
Less than Lethal Weapons
rethinks its use of Tasers
Tasers give juice to Newark law enforcement
Zogby Poll, Public supports police use of Tasers
"Shooting someone is not a badge of honor," Officer
Burns said. "It's something no one wants to do. No police officer in the
world is paid to die, no police officer in the world is paid to get hurt."
March 7, 2004
By SARAH KERSHAW, NY Times
SEATTLE, March 6 - The police here have had their share of
high-profile violent or deadly run-ins with protesters,
mentally ill suspects and other lawbreakers. But in 2003,
for the first time in 15 years, no one here was shot and
killed by the police.
Miami, a city with a long history of police shootings and
ensuing civil unrest, had no police shootings last year,
fatal or otherwise, for the first time in 14 years. In
Phoenix, where such shootings reached a level over the last
several years that far outpaced the rate of much larger
cities, deadly police shootings fell sharply in 2003, to
their lowest rate in 14 years.
In these cities and in a fast-growing number of the
nation's police departments, officers are carrying a slick
new weapon, the Taser gun, which looks a lot like a pistol
but does not shoot to kill.
Though officials say the Taser gun, which fires a stunning
jolt of electricity, is not solely responsible for a
decline in police killings, many departments say it has
made a huge difference. Its supporters say the Taser is
saving lives, protecting officers and suspects in standoffs
that might otherwise have left someone dead or seriously
"This is 100 percent more humane," said Officer Tom Burns,
who has carried a Taser gun for the past two and a half
years on bicycle patrol in Seattle.
But as the Taser spreads rapidly, it is raising questions
about whether the weapon, which can also be applied
directly to the skin as a stun gun, could be abused by the
police. The Taser zaps suspects with 50,000 volts of
electricity, disabling them for five seconds at a time.
Critics say the weapon is ripe for abuse because the shock
leaves no obvious mark, other than what looks like a small
bee sting. Human rights groups in the United States and
abroad have called Tasers potential instruments of torture.
They are now being used by more than 4,000 police
departments. Roughly 170 new departments are buying the
high-tech electro-shock guns every month, and the Army has
begun using them in Iraq, according to Taser International,
the Arizona company that makes them. More than one-third of
Seattle's 600 patrol officers carry Tasers. In Miami,
Phoenix and a growing number of cities, every officer has
Tasers have often been introduced in the wake of public
outcry over deadly police shootings. That was the case in
Seattle, Denver, Austin, Tex., and Portland, Ore., as part
of an effort to reduce killings through the use of training
programs and "less lethal" weapons.
"You have to think about the alternatives," said Officer
Burns, who also carries pepper spray and a .40-caliber
Glock pistol. He said he had used the Taser five times on
suspects who seemed eager to attack or were difficult to
control. "And without this technology you might have to
break it down to very brutal methods."
Officer Burns was on the scene in 2000 when the police here
shot and killed a mentally ill man, a widely publicized
incident that led to soul-searching in the department and a
plan that among other things involved the purchase of
The newest Tasers are an advanced version of technology
that was developed in the 1970's but was not considered by
the police to be effective until recently, The electrical
pulses travel from the gun through two 21-foot-long wires
that look like a stretched-out Slinky tipped with barbed
probes. If the probes pierce skin or a layer of clothing
two inches thick or less, the jolt contracts the muscles
and throws the suspect off balance. It makes the suspect
unable to move, and gives the police a full five seconds
with every "tasing" to handcuff the suspect. The police say
that 50,000 volts is a safe amount of electricity to absorb
and that suspects shot with a Taser recover immediately.
But critics and watchdog groups say the Taser could be used
to torture suspects and prison inmates to extract
confessions or taunt them, and Amnesty International has
called for a ban on their use pending studies on their
long-term effects. Human rights and civil liberties groups
are also questioning whether the electro-shocks that Tasers
deliver are potentially deadly.
"Surely it's better than being killed," said Dan Handelman,
a founder of Portland Copwatch, a group that has been
critical of that city's growing use of Tasers over the last
year. "But it's not necessarily an acceptable replacement
because it's not being used - at least in Portland - in
place of lethal force, it's being used for compliance."
Across the country in recent months, several suspects who
were shot with Tasers, sometimes repeatedly, have died. But
officials said other health problems, like heart conditions
and drug overdoses, were the cause.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado urged the
Denver Police Department two weeks ago to limit its use of
Tasers. The group cited a rising number of deaths
nationally, saying 16 suspects in custody had died after
being subdued with Tasers or stun guns in 2003, up from 10
in 2002 and 3 in 2001. But none of the deaths were
officially attributed to the effect of the weapons.
In Las Vegas, William Lomax, 26, died last month after
being arrested and, according to witnesses and the police,
shot with a Taser four or five times, which critics of the
Police Department said was an excessive use of force.
Investigators said that Mr. Lomax had been under the
influence of drugs, but that the cause of death was still
Marsha Bell, 22, said she saw Mr. Lomax, her cousin,
arrested on Feb. 21 at her apartment complex, where he
often visited his family. After he had a run-in with
security guards, the police were called.
"He was on the ground," Ms. Bell said in a telephone
interview. "He had two pairs of handcuffs on him, and I
didn't know the Taser was being used until I heard him
screaming. He kept screaming and screaming, saying, `Oh
God, Jesus, please no.' He was screaming in pain, he was
hurt and he didn't resist."
Lt. Tom Monahan of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police
Department, which bought several hundred Tasers last year,
said that Mr. Lomax had struggled with officers, security
guards and paramedics, and that the Taser was used while
officers were trying to handcuff him.
Officer Thomas Miller, who conducts Taser training for the
Las Vegas department, said that there were clear guidelines
on when Tasers should be used.
"In the past, an officer would have to fight," Officer
Miller said. "Now we have an option to stop that before it
gets to that point, greatly reducing the risk to the
officer and the suspect."
The police do say that a Taser would never replace lethal
weapons if an officer felt his life was in imminent danger,
like when a suspect is wielding a knife or a gun at close
proximity, or when no other officer is available to provide
"lethal cover" for an officer using the Taser. Most
departments allow officers on the scene to make that
In the New York City Police Department, supervisors and
members of the large Emergency Service Unit, which helps
patrol officers in violent situations, carry Tasers, but
patrol officers do not, the police said.
The newest models cost $799 each, according to Taser
International, the leading producer of the weapons. But
company officials, who have seen their stock skyrocket over
the last year, say the savings to police departments that
might otherwise be sued over violent confrontations or
shootings is potentially huge.
The police and other supporters of the new technology also
say there are built-in safeguards to prevent abuse of the
guns. Each Taser, which is powered by batteries, has a data
port that records each shock and is used by police
departments when they prepare incident reports, allowing
supervisors to count how many times a Taser was fired.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, which is
based in Scottsdale, Ariz., said the company continually
reviewed data and had found few instances among about
70,000 uses so far of abuse or inappropriate use.
"If there's a bad apple out there, the technology we made
will catch that bad apple," Mr. Tuttle said. "We've won the
lottery in terms of great success, stock market-wise, but
with that comes much more scrutiny."
Officer Burns of the Seattle department said the police
could not deny that a misguided officer could abuse any
weapon. But he said that there had been numerous instances
in Seattle where officers had used the Taser instead of
fists, nightsticks, guns or pepper spray, which can have
much longer effects than Taser shocks, and that suspects
had recovered immediately.
"Shooting someone is not a badge of honor," Officer Burns
said. "It's something no one wants to do. No police officer
in the world is paid to die, no police officer in the world
is paid to get hurt."