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Chicago Rethinks Its Use of Stun Guns


Published: February 12, 2005

CHICAGO, Feb. 11 - Until this tumultuous week, few residents of this city even realized that the police had added an alternative weapon to their arsenal, the Taser stun gun.

But by Friday, after the death of a man who struggled with the police in the hallway of a high-rise apartment building and the shooting earlier in the week of a 14-year-old boy after a confrontation inside the group home where he lives, Chicago found itself swept into the center of a national debate over use of the weapons.

Philip Cline, Chicago's police superintendent, promptly said he would not send 100 new stun guns out with his officers, as he had planned to in the next few weeks, until the incidents had been thoroughly studied.

And Edward M. Burke, the chairman of the City Council's finance committee, called on city leaders to go a step further and stop using any of the 200 Tasers that Chicago police sergeants already carry, at least for the moment.

"Until the results of the investigations are finalized," Mr. Burke said Friday, "the use of these ought to be restricted and put on hold. And I say that as chairman of finance. Once we are put on notice like this, the liability that then is created is substantial."

Chicago's sudden debate over Tasers, paralleling those that have cropped up in other cities, carries with it a central irony: top police officials here began considering the use of Tasers several years ago as a way to reduce the number of fatal police shootings with ordinary guns. Yet here they were now, wrestling with what effects Tasers, their nonlethal alternative of choice, might actually be having.

"The thing we're trying to do here is to prevent deaths," said Isaac Carothers, the chairman of the City Council's police committee, which is considering still other options for officers, like a device that looks like a flashlight and shoots pepper spray. "This is the key: finding a nonlethal alternative to a handgun. But the question is how to do it."

Tasers, which look like pistols and fire electrified barbs that are connected to the gun by insulated copper wires up to 25 feet long, hit their targets with a powerful electric shock that lasts at least five seconds.

Sales at Taser International, which makes the guns, soared in recent years as thousands of police departments bought them. Chicago's department began with five or six in the fall of 2003, then last April put all 200 of its current stun guns into the hands of sergeants in districts across the city. Nationally, more than 100,000 police officers carry Tasers.

But the incidents in Chicago come at a difficult time for Taser. Sales of Tasers have slowed since last fall, as human rights groups and scientists have questioned their safety. Almost 100 people have died after being shocked with Tasers, often after they received multiple shocks. In some cases, medical examiners have mentioned Tasers as a possible factor in the deaths.

Taser has said the deaths are unrelated to the gun and would have occurred in any event because of other factors like drug overdoses. But scientists who have examined the company's research say it is spotty and inconclusive. The company's primary safety studies on its most powerful weapon consist of shocks administered to one pig and five dogs.

Taser's stock has plunged since Tuesday, when the company said that its sales and profit for the fourth quarter of 2004 had fallen short of analysts' forecasts. Taser shares closed Friday at $13.50, down 92 cents. They dropped 19 percent for the week and have fallen 57 percent so far this year.

In Chicago, the week began with the 14-year-old boy, who lives in a group home because he is a ward of the state, being shot with a Taser and collapsing in what medical authorities said was cardiac arrest. By Friday, the boy was conscious and no longer on a ventilator but still in a hospital.

Dave Bayless, a Chicago police spokesman, said officers were called to the group home on Monday after the boy became enraged about being asked to take off a baseball cap, pushed and battered home employees, and kicked or punched out windows. The boy finally lunged at a police sergeant, who fired the Taser from about six feet away, Mr. Bayless said.

Robert F. Harris, Cook County's public guardian, who represents Chicago's abused and neglected children in courts, questioned the use of the Taser in such circumstances.