BURLINGTON -- Police in the Queen City may soon have a new type of weapon in their arsenal for dealing with violent and unruly suspects: the Taser, a dart-firing stun gun designed to instantly incapacitate a subject with a brief but intense electrical pulse. The Burlington Police Department has sent three of its officers to be trained as Taser instructors, and is already drafting its policies and use-of-force protocol for the new weapons. Between six and 12 Tasers, which cost about $1000 apiece including training and accessories, could be purchased as early as January.
In the last few years, Tasers have become a popular weapon for police and the military. More than 7200 law-enforcement agencies around the country now carry them, including police departments in Brattleboro, Milton and South Burlington, and the tactical unit of the Vermont State Police.
The hand-held device, often referred to as a "less-than-lethal" weapon, fires two barbed darts that can penetrate a person's skin or clothing from as far away as 25 feet. Two insulated copper wires deliver a 50,000-volt electrical shock that momentarily disables a person's neuromuscular controls, usually causing no lasting injuries.
Proponents of the Taser and similar electro-stun devices say they're a safer alternative to conventional weapons such as batons, mace and pepper spray. Many police commanders and corrections officers say the use of Tasers has resulted in fewer and less severe injuries to suspects and police officers alike. Some departments have reported a significant drop in excessive-force complaints and lawsuits filed by the public. Others credit the Taser with dramatic reductions in officer-involved shootings.
But human rights and civil liberties groups express serious concerns about their potential for abuse, as well as injuries and deaths attributed to the weapon. And some are calling for an immediate suspension of their use pending further independent reviews of their safety and effectiveness.
In Burlington, the electro-stun guns would not replace existing non-lethal weapons, but would offer cops one more tool for dealing with violent subjects who are armed, delusional and/or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. As Deputy Chief Walt Decker puts it, "The Taser is a very significant tool for people who are combative, where other pain-compliance techniques are not going to be effective."
Decker knows firsthand the weapon's ability to incapacitate a person. During a training demonstration last month, the deputy chief agreed to be "tased" for five seconds, the same way a subject might be subdued in the field. Decker says he didn't experience the incredible pain some people report, but he describes the effect as "very intense, concentrated muscle contractions" that felt comparable to "grabbing an electric cattle fence."
"[The instructor] stood up, shot those little things right into my back and down I went," Decker reports. "But after I took the hit, I could almost immediately recover."
The videotape of Decker and Detective Mike Hemond getting hit by the Taser shows both officers getting back on their feet right away; neither suffered any lasting effects. Decker explains that they videotaped the demonstration for several reasons. It shows the public that the police know what the weapon feels like before using it on others. And similar videotapes have helped departments in other jurisdictions around the country defend themselves against charges of police brutality.
In fact, the South Burlington Police Department, which has had 14 of the stun guns in use for the last year and a half, required all 37 of its officers to be zapped as part of their Taser training. As South Burlington Police Chief Lealand Graham explains, "The officers want to know what it feels like, and we want them to know what it feels like. It helps prevent any misuse." South Burlington cops have only used the devices about a half-dozen times in real-life situations, Graham adds. None of the incidents resulted in injuries.
But not everyone is convinced that the Taser's record is a stunning success. Critics of electroshock weapons express strong reservations about their potential for human rights violations, particularly because they can inflict severe and repeated pain at the touch of a button but leave behind few if any marks or burns. In November 2004, Amnesty International published an 89-page report on the use of Tasers, citing numerous examples of excessive and/or inappropriate use. They include instances of the weapon being used on children, the elderly, unarmed mentally ill subjects and non-combative individuals who refused to obey officers' commands or tried to flee arrest. Amnesty International called for the immediate suspension of all stun-gun weapons until rigorous, independent testing can confirm their safety and effectiveness.
A report published in May by the Arizona Republic -- Taser International is headquartered in Scottsdale -- documented 153 cases in the U.S. and Canada in which people died after receiving a police Taser strike. The newspaper, which reviewed autopsy records, police documents, media reports and Taser International's own records dating back to September 1999, found 21 cases in which medical examiners determined that "Tasers were a cause, a contributing factor, or could not be ruled out in someone's death."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont has not received any complaints about the inappropriate use of Tasers in this state. However, ACLU-VT Executive Director Allen Gilbert says the group still opposes their use until more testing is done. The ACLU also wants assurances that police departments will keep sufficient records on each case in which a Taser is used, and adopt policies limiting their use to circumstances when lethal force would otherwise be used.
Gilbert expresses particular concern that Tasers in Burlington could be misused because the police deal with a larger population of deranged, mentally ill and drug- and alcohol-impaired individuals than do other police forces in Vermont. Many of those individuals are also on medications or have other health conditions that could be exacerbated by a Taser shock, Gilbert adds.
Decker acknowledges the public's concerns about potential misuse and abuse of the weapon, but he believes they can all be addressed. For example, the Taser model that Burlington is considering -- the X-26 -- records the date, time and duration of every discharge. It also releases tiny, serial-marked "confetti" or AFIDs (Anti-Felon Identification Devices) that identify exactly which unit was fired.
Decker believes other problems can be minimized by appropriately training officers, and by adopting a comprehensive use-of-force policy that's written with input from Burlington's medical community and other emergency responders. While no police weapon is entirely without risk, Decker notes, the Taser is a far preferable alternative to chemical weapons such as pepper spray, which continues to burn a subject and poses an ongoing hazard to bystanders, medical staff and other responders.
"Anything with this type of notoriety will raise a certain amount of speculation," Decker adds. "But when you're in a situation where someone is a danger to themselves or others and you're looking for a non-lethal option, the Taser can be a very valuable tool."
The Burlington PD doesn't need City Council approval to purchase the new weapons. Decker says the department will hold an informational meeting for councilors and the public sometime in the next few months to address their concerns.