Burlington Police Chief Questions the Effectiveness of Tasers | Off Message

Burlington Police Chief Questions the Effectiveness of Tasers


Burlington police chief Brandon del Pozo - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN
  • File: Matthew Thorsen
  • Burlington police chief Brandon del Pozo
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo is questioning the reliability of the Taser, a ubiquitous law enforcement device.

The fact that Taser shots failed to subdue a mentally ill man who was subsequently fatally shot by police has caused his department to “reevaluate the trust we place in the instrument,” del Pozo said during an interview Wednesday.  

Nationwide, departments have stocked up on these stun guns, which are touted as a way to avoid drawing an actual gun. As part of a reform package announced after Chicago police shot and killed Laquan McDonald, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently ordered nearly 800 of them. 

Tasers work in two different ways. From a distance, they can shoot barbs into people, which have wires that attach to the device. With this method, an electric shock temporarily makes people lose muscular control. Tasers can also be applied directly to people’s skin, incapacitating them simply by causing intense pain. 

Despite their popularity among law enforcement professionals, Tasers have long been controversial. Vermont revisited its policies after a Thetford man who had been recovering from a brain seizure died after police Tased him.

Del Pozo, however, is calling attention to a different issue: what happens when Tasers don’t work.

He explained that people are sometimes able to pull out the barbs. Baggy clothing can prevent the barbs from attaching in the first place. And people who are using drugs or are in the throes of a mental health crisis may be less susceptible to the Taser-induced pain.

Last month, police used a Taser on a mentally ill Burlington resident named Ralph “Phil” Grenon, with no apparent effect. Del Pozo said that Grenon continued to advance toward the officers with knives. He said his officers did have a back-up plan — to back out of the room — and were doing so when two officers got cornered. Ultimately Grenon was shot multiple times and killed. 

Less than two weeks after that incident, the Los Angeles Times published a story that added to the Vermont chief’s concern. It concluded that “nearly a quarter of the people shot by on-duty LAPD officers last year — at least eight of 36 — were wounded or killed during encounters in which officers said they tried to use a Taser without success.”  

Citing LAPD data, the story notes that of the 1,100 times cops fired Tasers last year, the “devices had the desired outcome — causing someone to submit to arrest — only 53% of the time.”

Particularly when responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis, del Pozo said he now believes that “something with that type of failure rate can’t be a reliable part of the plan.”

Still, don’t expect del Pozo to ditch Tasers anytime soon. Noting that, “all techniques have failure rates,” he maintains that “in rapidly evolving situations, it’s still better than a gun.”

He suggested other “de-escalation” tools — protective body suits for officers; shields; high-pressure water devices similar to fire extinguishers; and a U-shaped piece of wrought iron called a shepherd’s crook, which can help police subdue somebody — could supplant Tasers in certain situations. The catch, he said: “Although they sound simple, they require a level of specialized training and coordination that doesn’t exist [locally].” 

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