Gun Shy

Phoenix police are shooting a lot fewer people

In 2002, the department had only 140 Tasers in use. Now it has 1,556. You may remember the startling headlines from early last year:

In 2002, Phoenix police officers shot 28 people, killing 13. It was a record year for police shootings, but not much worse than the previous five. Since 1996, Phoenix police had been shooting someone about once every two weeks.

In 2002, Phoenix officers were assaulted 794 times by suspects, far above the national average for assaults on police.

The new X-26 Taser weighs less than half as much as its predecessor.
Jackie Mercandetti
The new X-26 Taser weighs less than half as much as its predecessor.

Late last week, Phoenix police officials turned over their 2003 numbers to the mayor and city council members.

Those numbers are nothing short of amazing.

No, Phoenix officers didn't get their butts kicked less. Officers were still assaulted 789 times last year, only five fewer incidences than in 2002.

But while officers faced nearly the same number of volatile situations, they shot about half as many people. Instead of 28 shootings, there were 13 -- a drop of 15, or about 54 percent.

This is the lowest number of police shootings since 1990.

For the community, that's 15 fewer human rights conundrums. For cops, that's 15 fewer public relations nightmares. For taxpayers and risk-management types, that's 15 fewer potential lawsuits.

More amazing is this fact: In 2003, Phoenix police never once shot a person who was armed with something other than a gun, like, say, a club or knife or whiskey bottle.

What's the difference?

Quite simple, cops say. Super-geek technology and learning exactly the best way to use it.

Last year, Phoenix police went to full deployment of the M-26 stun gun, then upgraded to the X-26 stun gun, the next generation model from Taser International, the Scottsdale company that now holds one of the hottest stocks in America.

The X-26 is a substantially improved version of the company's five-year-old M-26, which already is in wide use by police agencies around the country. While still capable of locking up any human's central nervous system, the X-26 is much smaller than the M-26 and weighs seven ounces -- 11 ounces less than the M-26.

Basically, the Taser people found a way to deliver the same electrical punch with much less battery power, which means much less battery weight.

For police, that size decrease matters. Unlike the M-26, officers can carry the X-26 on their belt. Because of the now manageable size and full distribution of the X-26, Phoenix patrol officers are now required to carry the X-26.

In 2002, the record year for police shootings, the department had only 140 Tasers assigned primarily to special police units. Now, Phoenix has 1,556 Tasers, enough for every patrol officer.

Which means that now, at many confrontations between the police and the public, two or three officers are likely to have Tasers available for quick deployment where last year police would have been lucky to have just one.

This is critical because the X-26, like earlier models, can shoot only once (although it now can be reloaded quickly with a second cartridge that comes with the gun). Now officers can take several Taser shots if the first shot misses.

Which is still too often the case. In two highly publicized shootings in Mesa last year, and a less-talked-about incident in Chandler, only one of the two electrical probes from the Taser hit its target. The suspects kept moving toward officers and were shot and killed with police handguns.

Even with the X-26, the human body is still a hard target for Tasers. That's because the Taser's two probes must spread out about a foot from one another to work properly. In effect, the officer must be far enough away from the target to ensure the two probes disperse properly. And, at the same time, the officer must shoot precisely enough that both probes will latch to the target.

That's not easy, especially when your adrenaline is pumping and the target is moving.

That's where the training comes in.

At the same time Phoenix police were talking the city council into buying the new Tasers, which cost about $590,000 (risk management kicked in $300,000 of that), they were creating new scenario-based Taser training standards. In essence, officers are now taught how to best maneuver around a suspect to set up the best possible Taser shot.

"All of a sudden, we have all our officers on the streets with a remarkably effective non-lethal weapon that they know how to use in all kinds of situations," says Sergeant Randy Force, a Phoenix police public information officer. "Because they now feel confident with it, they're using it in situations they otherwise would have used a gun or one of their other tools."

Phoenix police fired their Tasers 354 times in 2003, up from 148 times in 2002.

Okay. So now our cops are Taser happy? I imagined getting whacked for a parking ticket.

"We've also created strict guidelines on when the things can be used," Force says. "The gun itself records each incident and the officer must complete a separate report for each firing. We don't treat this thing as a new toy."

Steve Tuttle, a Taser International exec, says Phoenix has been a leader nationally in perfecting the new weapon's effectiveness with upgraded training and policies.

Phoenix isn't alone in the Valley for widespread Taser use and training. Chandler and the Salt River Indian Community are now also at full deployment of the new Taser. Glendale and Mesa are also moving quickly to upgrade and retrain.

But several other law enforcement agencies are meeting resistance from their local governments. Paradise Valley only has two Tasers, for example. Tempe and Scottsdale have been slow to upgrade. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office also has been shortchanged by county supervisors for Taser purchases. Some sheriff's deputies carry Tasers they bought with their own money.

I never thought I'd say this: Sheriff Joe Arpaio clearly deserves a little more financial love from his governing board. In this case.

As do all police agencies meeting resistance as they push for full and intelligent deployment of the X-26.

Especially considering the new numbers emerging from the Phoenix Police Department, numbers that suggest that after years of increasing violence between officers and the public, there now exists a way to avoid the widespread pain that comes when an officer shoots a citizen.

Is the X-26 an absolute magic bullet? Of course not. But Phoenix has proved it's the best tool out there. And when the matter is life or death, all of the state's police and the people they serve deserve the best tools available.

E-mail robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.

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