Taser Aftershock!

Turns out much-maligned stun guns are a good thing overall

Though there continue to be notable exceptions, police officers these days prefer the least amount of physical contact possible with citizens. That's a change from earlier generations, when beat cops commonly used fists and nightsticks as tools of compliance.

Some of the reasons are obvious: Cops don't fancy getting sued for using excessive force, getting injured in a brawl with a bad guy, or facing an internal-affairs investigation for being too rough on a suspect.

What also has changed: Law enforcement has other less-lethal weapons at its command, most prominently the Taser.

This is the Taser model used by Phoenix Police Department patrol officers.
This is the Taser model used by Phoenix Police Department patrol officers.
Phoenix police Lieutenant Dave Kelly: "Before Taser, we’d shot a lot of people who threatened us with rocks . . ."
Laura Segall
Phoenix police Lieutenant Dave Kelly: "Before Taser, we’d shot a lot of people who threatened us with rocks . . ."

Police generally love the thing. Cops consider it a big plus to have another option at their command — something between ordering a suspect to put down a knife or rock and . . . kaboom.

Something worthy of mention in an assessment of Taser use is that the Phoenix department, like most other big-city forces in America, requires its officers to shoot to kill. In other words, cops are trained to fire their guns only when killing a suspect is warranted. It's not like it is in the movies, where police shoot weapons out of suspects' hands or purposely wing them.

So, without Taser, it makes sense to say, an untold number of citizens here and elsewhere would have lost their lives in clashes with the police.

But the Taser remains a controversial topic in the news media, among human-rights organizations, and with plaintiffs in civil cases, as questions about its safety continue to nag the Scottsdale firm that manufactures it.

In an attempt to assess whether stun guns are the demon they've been made out to be or are a positive force both for police and the suspects they must collar, New Times conducted a months-long analysis of the use of Tasers by Phoenix cops. The investigation determined that the weapons have proved far more positive than negative, both to citizens and to law enforcement.

Bottom line: When used properly, the Taser generally does what it's supposed to do. And that is, according to Taser International's training manual: "Incapacitate dangerous, combative, or high-risk subjects who pose a risk to law enforcement officers, innocent citizens, or themselves in a manner that is generally recognized as a safer alternative to other uses of force."

Clearly, many people have avoided physical injury or death because Tasers stopped them before dicey situations became worse.

Precisely how many lives have been saved and how many injuries have been averted is impossible to say, but, as Phoenix police training Officer Kevin Johnson told a class during a Taser orientation session last month, "Let's put it this way. A lot of people are walking around out there who wouldn't be if not for Tasers."

Phoenix police Lieutenant Dave Kelly, who heads the department's advanced-training unit adds, "I've seen many, many cases where a subject would have gotten shot pre-Taser, and legitimately so."

The evidence also reveals that, despite a population growth in Phoenix of about 400,000 people since the start of 2003 (the year that the Phoenix department gave each of its patrol officers Tasers for the first time), the numbers of injuries sustained by officers and suspects have decreased markedly.

In 2002, according to department statistics, 42 Phoenix cops were injured in clashes with citizens, compared with just 35 in 2006.

Phoenix statistics also show that suspect injuries decreased 67 percent in 2004 from two years earlier, a huge decline.

"We honestly give the Taser a lot of credit for the reduction in injuries," Kelly says.

It's interesting to note that many more Phoenix officers were assaulted with firearms in 2006 than in 2002 — 61 last year compared with 40 in '02.

Phoenix doesn't track how many suicides may have been averted because of Tasers, but other agencies do. The Columbus Police Department in Ohio documented 12 incidents in 2005 during which people threatening to kill themselves were subdued after getting Tased. The population of Columbus is about 750,000, which makes it roughly half the size of Phoenix.

How many would-be Columbus suicide victims had weapons and how many were trying to force police to kill them (known to authorities as "suicide-by-cop") is uncertain.

For this story, New Times analyzed the 42 police reports generated in April 2006, after Phoenix officers had used Tasers on someone. (See "The Taser: Almost Never a Lethal Weapon.") Officer Sakalas' situation inside the west-side convenience store was one of those cases. Most of the incidents happened after complaints of domestic violence, reports of suspicious people, and while the police were on routine patrol.

No one died or was seriously injured that month, though one cop's ribs were broken as he tried to subdue a doped-up driver who had intentionally rear-ended another car in north Phoenix in a bizarre suicide attempt.

Officers fired their Tasers in 26 of the 42 sample cases and used the weapon as kind of an electrified cattle-prod (police call it "drive-stunning" a suspect) on 18 occasions. The reason for the funny arithmetic is that two people were Tased with probes and were prodded with the device.

Many of those Tased in April 2006 faced felony charges, and some were later sentenced to prison. Others were ordered into the county's mental-health system.

But what didn't turn up in the Phoenix stats for that or any other month was how often people comply with the cops just because of the threat of being shocked. That number is extraordinary, according to several cops interviewed for this article.

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My Voice Nation Help

good story! hot cop! :) protect me any day!

Frank Pinelander
Frank Pinelander

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.

Fred Luria
Fred Luria

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.

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