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Are Tasers good tools for police — or deadly force?

Published: Sunday, July 20 2008 12:11 a.m. MDT

Utah County sheriff's deputy Cameron Baxter grimaces as he experiences a shock from a Taser.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SPANISH FORK — She clenched her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut, kicked her feet and let out a primal scream.

After five seconds, her body went limp. It was over.

"I've never felt pain like that before," said Michelle Frampton, after an instructor pulled two Taser barbs out of her back. "I was trying to curl up into a ball. It hurt a lot."

During a recent Taser-training exercise at the Utah County Jail, Frampton was the only Utah County sheriff's deputy who volunteered to get struck with the Taser probes and shocked for the full five-second charge to experience the tool she'll be carrying on her belt. Others had probes taped on for a two-second exposure.

"It's a very good weapon, absolutely," the new deputy said. "(Now) I'll understand what (people shocked with the Taser are) going through. You don't want to hold (the trigger) longer than you have to."

Tasers continue to gain popularity both as an effective tool for police officers and a lighting rod for medical controversy.

YouTube is full of videos showing officers using Tasers and civilians screaming about police brutality. Utah Highway Patrol trooper Jon Gardner made national news when he used his Taser on Jared Massey on the side of the road in eastern Utah. Massey had refused to cooperate and walked away, putting his hands in his pockets.

Andrew Meyer, a student at the University of Florida, has forever immortalized the phrase, "Don't Tase me, bro," after he peppered Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry with questions during a speech and refused to obey officers' requests to calm down.

So how often are these weapons being used in Utah? And how are they being monitored?

The Deseret News requested records through the Government Records Access Management Act from several Utah police agencies to see just how often officers are using Tasers on residents.

From 2003 to 2007 in Utah County alone, Tasers were deployed 162 times. Add in Salt Lake City, West Valley City and St. George and the number of Taser incidents rises to 428.

What is a Taser?

A Taser, which is actually an acronym for the weapon used by its inventor's favorite book hero, the Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, looks nothing like a rifle. In fact, the weapon uses compressed air so it isn't considered a gun. Instead of shooting bullets, a Taser deploys barb-filled cartridges.

When it's deployed, the barbs fly out of the cartridge and stick in clothing or skin.

The X26, the most common Taser, has a potential maximum of 50,000 volts when it's not hitting a human. When it makes contact it's around 1,500 to 3,000 volts.

That sounds like a lot, but the important fact is that it uses 2.1 miliamps, says Steve Tuttle, a Taser spokesman. A wall socket has 110 volts but 16 amps behind it, which is why the shock from sticking a fork into an outlet would be much more severe than a Taser jolt.

Another comparison: A cardiac defibrillator uses 360 joules per pulse, Tuttle said. A Taser uses .07 joules per pulse.

There's a crackling, popping sound as the Taser completes a five-second round of "shocking," locking up all the individual's muscles and usually dropping him like a sack of potatoes.

"I think they're a great tool," said Provo Police Capt. Cliff Argyle. "Even though it's painful, it's actually saving people's lives and reducing injury."

Provo began using Tasers in 2006 and since then has reported nearly 30 uses.

For training at the jail, deputies were held up on either side by co-workers, to prevent collapse.

The common response was a tightening of all body muscles, clenched teeth and clutched fists. Some officers even rose up on their tiptoes.

The first words out of the mouth of one officer were curses.

"Wow, that was bad," was the first phrase from another. "Holy crap."

As soon as the shock is over, the pain is gone. No lingering side effects.

"Most pain is just where you hurt, not your entire body," said Utah County deputy sheriff Remington Barron. "(This one) started, stopped and then it was over. I don't feel hurt at all."

Using appropriate force

When Orem officers arrived at a group home on Feb. 2, 2005, the 6 foot, 200 pound, mentally unstable boy had broken off two legs from a chair and was threatening himself and others.

"I saw (him) coming toward us in a very threatening manner as he was holding those sticks above him as if he was going to stab one of us," an officer wrote in his police report obtained by the Deseret News.

"I felt the only way to resolve the situation with minimum risk of injury to (him) and officers was to deploy my Taser," another responding officer wrote.

The boy, who had not responded to pepper spray, was struck with two deployments from a Taser and finally complied, dropping the sticks. Officers took him to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center for treatment for the probe entry wounds plus further mental health evaluations.

"To me, what the Taser does, it gives us one more option before we have to shoot somebody or (take) a night stick to them," said Springville Police Lt. Dave Caron. "That never works out well."

The Taser allows officers to distance themselves from a situation, decreasing injury for both the officer and the suspect.

"We have not had to go hands-on with a suspect since we issued the Tasers," said Santaquin Police Chief Dennis Howard. "(They) de-escalate a situation immediately." Santaquin began equipping its officers in 2002.

The weapon is most effective within 7 to 15 feet. Less than 7 feet and the barbs don't spread as far and the muscle-freezing nature of the tool is limited. Thick clothing will also prevent a good connection.

However, even after the barbs have been deployed, an officer can still "drive stun" a suspect — pushing the weapon into a muscle for the same type of shock.

But before an officer ever pulls it off his or her belt, they have to attend classes, learn about appropriate use of force and experience a Taser themselves.

Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Jason Randall, a county Taser and use-of-force instructor, emphasized repeatedly to his class the importance of a U.S. Supreme Court case — Graham v. Connor — that has defined "use of force" for officers.

Officers responding to a situation must ask: Is there a threat? Is this person resisting or feeling? What is the offense? And what are the exigent circumstances?

If someone has pummeled his neighbor, refused to cooperate with police and is trying to flee, there's little need to shoot him with a gun, but he does need to be stopped. A Taser may be the right tool.

However, Randall reminded his class not to become Taser-dependent.

"There's a guy with a knife who has just stabbed a kid," Randall said as an example. "The first thing out of your holster had better be a gun."

But like any other police tool, the Taser has a time and a place.

"I could teach a monkey to pull out a Taser," Randall said. "The issue is when we use it, do we use it appropriately."

Recording and reporting

Each time a Taser is deployed, it shoots out tiny confetti paper circles with minuscule serial numbers on them. Those are gathered at each scene, along with the cartridge, and booked into evidence to document whose Taser was used and how many Tasers were used.

The officer also takes pictures of the puncture sites and calls for medical attention, Randall said.

Each deployment is documented in the police report, as well as all verbal pre-warnings before Taser use.

"So far, in every case, I've never had occasion to question (an officer's) judgment," Caron said. "In reading the report, talking to the officers there, the Taser was appropriate."

"We review every situation where a Taser has been utilized," said Howard of Santaquin. "I've never seen abuse (with) it. What you're looking for is compliance and control. As soon as we have that control, the Taser is holstered and documented in all of our reports."

When Deseret News requested Taser numbers from Payson, it was the first time such a request had been made. Now officials said they're changing the way they keep their records.

"We need to have a totally separate form ... specifically for this," said Payson Police Lt. Bill Wright. "So actually your inquiry is going to be a good thing so we can get our hands immediately on that information. We grumbled a little bit, but the fact still remains that we're accountable for what we do, so it's important."

Medical controversy

"There has been very little good research done, and by good I mean conclusive, about the potential health effects of Tasers," said Jared Strote, an assistant professor at the University of Washington in the division of Emergency Medicine and an ER doctor who has studied Tasers extensively. "No one has proven that Tasers do in fact kill people and no one has proven that Tasers are completely safe and don't kill people. Honestly, it's still an unknown."

Some argue Tasers are not fatal, while others point out that hundreds of people have died after a confrontation in which a Taser was used.

"Since June 2001, more than 290 individuals in the United States have died after being struck by police Taser," according to a statement on the Amnesty International Web site. "Amnesty International is concerned that Tasers are being used as tools of routine force rather than as weapons of last resort. Rigorous, independent, impartial study of their use and effects is urgently needed."

However, statements like those concern Taser Inc., because the company says they're taken out of context.

"It's misleading and inflammatory," Taser spokesman Tuttle said. "The public thinks, 'Wow, another death caused by Taser.' But wait six weeks, six months ... find out what the medical examiner says and get cleared. We'd say that it was a very tragic event, but it had nothing to do with the Taser."

He said Amnesty quotes such high numbers of Taser-related deaths because they don't account for deaths that are medically cleared to have been caused by something other than a Taser — possibly excited delirium, drug overdoses or underlying health problems.

Deseret News records show two Utah deaths after Taser use since 1987: a Salt Lake City man in 2006 and a Springville man in 2004.

In the 2004 case, a medical examiner concluded the man died of "excited delirium due to acute ephedrine intoxication."

Excited delirium is most often brought on by drug use, illness, head trauma or psychosis, marked by erratic actions, racing pulse, profuse sweating, disrobing, superhuman strength and imperviousness to pain, plus core body temperatures as high as 106 degrees, Randall explained to his class at the jail.

And once the body reaches a certain temperature, the organs start irreversibly shutting down. At that point, an individual will most likely die, regardless of Taser use. However, if one is used, questions arise.

"The question is can the Taser, does the Taser push people over the edge," Strote said. "Research hasn't provided a definitive answer to that."

Plus, "excited delirium" is still not accepted by some medical professionals as a legitimate medical condition.

"Medical research has a responsibility, too. It needs to start studying excited delirium," Tuttle said. "Just because it's not a billing code doesn't mean it doesn't exist. A gunshot wound is not listed as a billing code, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

However, medical officials aren't on scene when a Taser is used on a crazed suspect, so they can't take immediate blood samples or note behaviors indicative of excited delirium, Strote said.

An individual's medical history and drug habits also affect responses to a Taser.

In Strote's study, based on medical examiner reports, he found that 20 of his 37 male subjects who died after a Taser was used had cardiovascular disease and 12 had either significant coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathy. Twenty-nine of the 37 subjects tested positive for illegal substances.

Excited delirium, heart disease or psychosis aside, many groups are calling for more studies of the potentially lethal tool, including Taser.

"Taser technology is not risk-free," Tuttle said. "You're using these in a use-of-force situation — it's inherently dangerous. But it's a safer use-of-force alternative, especially when you compare this to a baton strike, a kick, canine bite, punch. We're getting a better alternative for police."


E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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