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Tasers Getting More Prominent Role in Crime Fighting in NY City

Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Sgt. Patrick Donnelly carried his Taser outside a station house in New York, where stun guns have a troubled history.

Published: June 15, 2008
After decades languishing in the trunks of squad cars, the Taser, the handgun-shaped device that incapacitates people with a pulsating electrical current, is getting a chance at a higher profile in the New York Police Department.

The Taser’s career in New York has contrasted with its ubiquity around the nation, as police officials from Wisconsin to California have praised its usefulness, particularly in encounters with the emotionally disturbed. According to the device’s manufacturer, Taser International, more than 345,000 Tasers have been sold to 12,750 law enforcement and military agencies in 44 countries, with 4,500 agencies distributing them to their entire forces.

By contrast, about 500 Tasers are deployed in New York.

The weapon has not been fully embraced by the Police Department, the nation’s largest police force, partly because of the difficulties in maintaining the devices and in training officers. But it is also because Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has looked cautiously at Taser technology. Stun guns have a troubled history here: An early model was at the center of a scandal in the early 1980s when it was used to force drug suspects to confess. Mr. Kelly, then a deputy inspector, was assigned to clean up the mess.

The old stun gun looked like an electric razor and worked when applied directly to a person’s body. Today’s Taser fires a dart at its target from a distance.

Last week, a report on a study of police shootings — commissioned in 2007 after a Queens man, Sean Bell, was killed by officers — recommended that the New York police experiment with using Tasers more. In response, Mr. Kelly said that Tasers would move out of the dark trunks of select police vehicles to sergeants’ crowded gun belts. But he remained cautious, saying sergeants would still be the only ones with the authority to handle Tasers. That population of 3,500 supervisors is larger than most other departments.

“This is like turning a battleship around, or an aircraft carrier,” Mr. Kelly said of the challenges of implementing any new law enforcement tool in the Police Department. The New York force, for example, switched later than others from 6-shot revolvers to 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistols. And even then the semiautomatics initially carried only 10 shots, not the regular 16.

The shooting report, by the RAND Corporation, suggested that Tasers still required more study in New York, particularly since there was a dearth of reliable data about their use.

Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the concern now is whether officers will use Tasers in situations where they traditionally had used much less force, and whether civilians will be unnecessarily and more frequently subjected to their use.

“Is it actually an alternative that leads to reduced use of firearms by the police?” Mr. Dunn said. “Or does it lead to increased use of force? The concern is we are going up the ladder of force, as opposed to coming down the ladder.”

RAND researchers, in studying the department’s analysis of 455 of its shootings, said that officers might have been able to end confrontations more quickly by using a less lethal device — like a Taser — before those encounters escalated to a point where deadly force was necessary. They did not say that Tasers should supplant handguns.

Mr. Kelly, who wants his top commanders to read the RAND study and give him feedback, said he would probably carry out a variation of the RAND suggestion that the department create a pilot program in selected precincts to expand the availability of Tasers.

He said two precincts would likely be chosen for the program — one with Tasers and one without them, as a control — based on their work volume and demographics. But, he quickly added, “I cannot stress enough that no decision has been made on this.”

Stun guns were introduced in New York in the early 1980s, when officers were confronting a higher number of disturbed people because of the rapid and widespread deinstitutionalization of mental health patients. The devices were not seen as a success.

The technology had not been perfected and the devices were kept mostly in Emergency Service Unit officers’ trucks. Several high-ranking officers and sergeants were transferred from the 106th Precinct in Queens after officers were charged with using stun guns on drug suspects during interrogations. Mr. Kelly was assigned by Commissioner Benjamin Ward to clean things up.

Perhaps spurred by memories of that scandal, Mr. Kelly added a cautionary line to the new rules of engagement for the Taser. The order, published on June 4, said that putting a Taser directly against someone’s body should not be the primary method of use and that such cases of “touch-stun mode” would be investigated.

Currently, the police deploy the Taser about 300 times a year, mainly when responding to some of the 80,000 calls for emotionally disturbed people. Mr. Kelly says that when the Taser has been used, it has worked well. “We have to be careful, we have to be conservative, in our deployment of these devices,” he said.

In 2007, 41 people complained of being struck with a Taser by officers and 9 said they had been confronted by officers brandishing one, according to Andrew Case, a spokesman for the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates allegations of wrongdoing by officers. Of those complaints, one was substantiated, he said.

So far this year, the board has received 17 complaints from people who said they were struck with a Taser by officers and 6 from those who said they were confronted by them, Mr. Case said. None of the 2008 cases have been fully investigated yet; eight have been closed because the victim refused to provide a statement, one has been withdrawn, and the others remain open.

The Taser model being used in New York is the M26, which is not the newest version (that is the X26, which is 60 percent lighter and smaller). The M26 is yellow, looks like a 9-millimeter Glock, weighs about 16 ounces and costs about $400.

The weapon uses a compressed-nitrogen cartridge to launch two probes that travel 15 to 35 feet. At the end of each probe is a wire that attaches to the skin and clothing. The Taser can work through about two cumulative inches of clothing, said Stephen D. Tuttle, a Taser spokesman. The probes deliver 3,000 volts of electrical current to the body, or 0.36 joules per pulse. (There are 19 pulses a second, and each trigger cycle lasts for 5 seconds).

By contrast, a cardiac defibrillator operates with 360 joules per pulse on average, Mr. Tuttle said. The Taser pulses stimulate the motor nerves, impairing communication between the brain and the muscles and essentially incapacitating the person, he said.

Kenneth S. McGuire, a sergeant with the Temple University police in Philadelphia, said his 110-member force does not use the Taser, but he would like to change that. In 2006, he became a certified trainer in the use of the Taser. To help him understand the device, he even took a Taser hit to his back.

“Basically, the only way I can explain it is if you’ve ever gotten a really bad leg cramp in your calf, if you’re swimming, imagine that in your whole body; that’s how it feels,” Sergeant McGuire said. “Your muscles freeze up, they call it the plywood effect.”

He added, “It lasts up to five seconds. And then you’re fine, you’re good to go.”

Tasers came under a new spotlight as the image of a square-jawed Mr. Kelly holding a stun gun was beamed across the media landscape on Monday and Tuesday, and as news spread that the nation’s largest police force was taking a fresh look at the device. At the same time, a sea of controversial Taser headlines seemed to crop up. It was not the first time. A video of a student being subdued with a Taser by campus security at the University of Florida during a John Kerry speech in 2007 — and imploring, “Don’t Tase me, bro!” — became a YouTube sensation.

On Monday, a 26-year-old man died after he was shocked twice with a Taser by an officer on Long Island trying to keep him from swallowing a bag of cocaine, the Suffolk County police said. The man, Tony Curtis Bradway of Brooklyn, spat out a white powder and “remnants of a plastic bag,” the police said, and he died at a hospital nine hours after the episode.

The next day, news broke that a federal jury in California had held Taser International partly responsible in the death of a Salinas, Calif., man and had awarded his family more than $6 million in that civil case. It was the first loss in court for the Arizona company, said Mr. Tuttle, who added that the company had 70 wins or dismissals in civil cases and noted that the jury in the California case had found the company “15 percent” liable for the man’s death.

On Wednesday, Sanford A. Rubenstein, a lawyer, announced the filing of a lawsuit against New York City in the case of a retired police lieutenant’s son who had been hit four times with a Taser after the police responded to a barbecue at his Harlem home last August.

The man, Alexander Lombard III, who was 18 at the time, “has permanent Taser marks and scarring,” Mr. Rubenstein said. “And he is getting counseling and getting physical therapy.”

Also on Wednesday, Amnesty International said it had tracked more than 300 cases since 2001 in which people died after being shocked by a Taser. And although studies have not shown what role the devices might have played in those deaths, “extreme caution” is in order, said Larry R. Cox, the executive director of Amnesty.

“They should be fired in circumstances when the use of deadly force would be the only alternative,” said Mr. Cox. He said that the Taser’s billing as a “safe, nonlethal instrument” was faulty.