By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
First of two parts
For one young Phoenix police officer, the Taser X26 he was carrying on April 23, 2006, was a godsend both for him and the man who said he wanted to die.
Kevin Sakalas already was a fan of stun guns, of which Taser International is, by far, the world's largest manufacturer. About a year earlier, Sakalas had taken extra training on his own at the company's headquarters in Scottsdale "because I thought it would help me be a better police officer."
He had allowed himself to be Tased there so that he could experience what it felt like, something his department hasn't permitted during training sessions since 2003.
"No fun," the officer says of being shocked for a few seconds in the controlled setting. "But I got the picture."
Sakalas had stopped to use a restroom at a convenience store at West 44th Avenue and Indian School Road while on patrol around dawn that April morning. As he stepped into the store, the cop saw a man near the cold-drink section holding a razor blade he'd taken out of a box cutter.
Speaking Spanish, the 34-year-old man told a store employee he wanted Sakalas to shoot him. The officer called immediately for backup on his portable radio.
"He's flashing the razor blade, and he's slowly moving toward me," Sakalas says about the man, who wasn't large but was highly agitated. "I'm, 'Oh, great.' But I'm not going to shoot this guy. I tell him in Spanish to drop the blade and get to his knees. He's not listening. I tell the employees to exit the store for their own safety."
The man put the blade to his own throat, saying in broken English, "I don't want life."
Before Taser, Sakalas probably would have unholstered his gun and, if the man continued to edge toward him with the knife, he would have shot him.
But now that carrying a Taser has become standard for cops in about 11,000 agencies nationwide, police procedures have changed.
The stun gun was designed for hairy situations like this one.
So what happened was: Sakalas reached for his Taser instead of his service revolver, just as two other cops entered the store as backup.
"I didn't have my nightstick with me," the officer says, "and using pepper-spray in that closed environment wasn't appropriate. I didn't know the guy's intentions, but his shirt was untucked, and he was lunging toward me, six or seven feet away. We're taught at the academy that one of the worst things you can face is someone with a knife. Going 'hands on' was the last thing I wanted to do at that moment."
Sakalas pointed his Taser at the man's chest but decided he wouldn't pull the trigger until his target moved the blade away from his neck.
As soon as the officer saw his opening, he pulled the trigger once and released it.
Two electrified probes (they look like straightened fish hooks) shot out of the stun gun attached to stainless-steel wires that stay connected to the weapon. The probes are designed to nail their targets up to a distance of 21 feet.
Volumes of research show that though the electrical charge will continue as long as the trigger is depressed, one five-second cycle (a single trigger pull and release) from the battery-powered device is enough to cause temporary loss of muscle control.
The top probe is designed to shoot straight while the lower probe shoots downward at an eight-degree trajectory. If both darts hook into a target's skin or clothing, the shock and its aftermath are supposed to make the suspect unable to resist or fight for several seconds.
In this instance, the probes from Kevin Sakalas' Taser penetrated the man's clothes but failed to incapacitate the guy long enough for the cops to take him into custody.
One of the backup officers then fired his Taser at the man's chest.
The man crumpled to the floor as police rushed in and cuffed him.
Though the man seemed fine within in a minute or so, the cops called in Phoenix Fire Department paramedics to examine him at the store. Then, instead of taking the man to jail, authorities took him to a county psychiatric facility for observation.
No charges would be filed in the case.
Officer Sakalas, by the way, finally got to use the restroom.
"The Taser gives us something we didn't have before," he says. "I'm not saying it's 100 percent effective or that it's magic. You do have human or mechanical failures on occasion. But it's a very good tool to have at your disposal."
Every day in Phoenix, police officers face situations that have the potential of escalating into violence.
There are domestic-dispute calls and confrontations with tweakers and drunks too messed up to consider the ramifications of mixing it up with uniformed cops.
The cops also contend with people who are suicidal, seriously mentally ill, or both.
They defuse most situations without having to draw their weapons, which include service revolvers, nightsticks, pepper spray and, of course, Taser stun guns.
Phoenix police in 2006 deployed their Tasers about once every three days on average either by firing the probes or by pushing the device against a suspect's body like a cattle prod and shocking a suspect in an effort to gain compliance.
It appears the only reason a variety of "civil-rights groups" don't like the Taser is it takes money out of their pockets by minimizing "wrongful death" lawsuits.
Congratulations on a really great job on this story. As the brother of a police officer, I know what goes on out there and how many times that guns would be the right call over anything else. Tasers aren't perfect by any means as the story says, but they sure as hell are better than getting a bullet in the chest, or even better than getting the crap beat out of you because you won't stop. Everyone who trashes Taser should read this. You can use this as a letter or not, I just wanted to thank you.