Merits, concerns raised over police implementing tasers

by Town Reminder

Merits, concerns raised over police implementing tasers
By Jason Cook
Turley Publications Correspondent

SOUTH HADLEY – One of the newest tools available to today’s police department is the taser. But there is still much the public does not know about these weapons. South Hadley’s latest meeting of Know Your Town tried to broach some of these questions Monday night.
The issue became a talking point in the town when the police department was offered a gift of funds to purchase four tasers from Village Commons CEO James Carey. But Sgt. Mark Baran – who recently completed a taser training program – insists this was something the department had been looking into for some time.
Chief of Police David LaBrie put it simply in his portion of the presentation. “Will [tasers] help officers do their jobs better?” He believes they will.
LaBrie relayed a recent encounter in which one of the current methods of subduing hostile individuals – pepper or O.C. spray – just enraged a man, who was “6’3” and 300 pounds,” he said. The man was eventually subdued, but at the cost of injury to two of LaBrie’s officers – causing one to retire because of complications. He believes had tasers been available in this particular instance, they would have “prevented injury to officers and this particular person being jailed.”
While LaBrie and Baran are in favor of tasers being available to the South Hadley police, Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, Chris Pyle, is skeptical. After the police department presented a slide show of graphs, information, studies and other findings relating to tasers, Pyle questioned their accuracy. “There is one flaw,” Pyle said. “The information is from the taser corporation.”
Pyle claims that much of the raw data from the studies referenced by LaBrie is difficult to find and some of the studies were funded by the one company who manufactures tasers, Taser International Inc., bringing into question the validity of the results. “I ask you to be skeptical,” he said. “I don’t believe everything I hear from a corporation.”

Excessive force was also brought up by Pyle, who believes tasers could expose the town to risk of lawsuits, which could possibly cost South Hadley millions of dollars, should problems arise. Supporting this point was ACLU member and the director of the Western Massachusetts Legal Office William Newman. He highlighted a diagram presented by the South Hadley police in which Taser International Inc. advocated for aiming for the back of suspects when firing a taser. “Now we [Taser Inc.] recommend you shoot people in the back,” Newman said, implying that taser safety practices are ever-changing, making them a risky proposition. “The only urgency is for you [the police department] to wait.”
Baran explained that the taser itself records time, date and duration, which is then uploaded to an off-site server, a sort of self-contained security camera. Since one concern raised regarded officers holding the trigger down too long, the hope is this feature will eliminate that.
Pyle – who has authored a book on torture – believes abuse of power is possible. “Don’t count on training,” Pyle said in regard to the taser training program officers will be required to complete. “Existential ethics takes hold,” he said, adding, “All it takes is one of the 27 officers having a bad day” and Pyle said it could cost the town millions. “Is it worth the liability?”
That bottom line – a suit costing the town millions – was touched upon multiple times by Pyle and Newman. Pyle mentioned a case in Chicago where a law enforcement unit was caught torturing suspects during interviews using electricity that cost the city $16.5 million. Pyle also mentioned the well-known case of Victoria Snelgrove, who was struck and killed by another supposedly non-lethal weapon in 2004. That case cost Boston roughly $5 million, according to Pyle.
During the question-and-answer portion of the program, David Standen, a Springfield police officer, Hadley resident and an instructor of taser use, said that any and all officers who used a taser improperly – such as those who fired upon an elderly Florida woman in a wheelchair, a story Pyle relayed, should be “fired and deserve whatever is coming to them.”
Standen explained that each state has different policies when it comes to taser use, and his proposed guidelines include no one under 17 or above 70 should be tased except under “extenuating circumstances.” Standen explained that police use of force is not like it is on television and in films. “Batons, punches … are messy,” he said. He believes tasers are a better alternative.
South Hadley would not be the first of the Western Massachusetts towns to discuss the implementation of tasers. Amherst and Northampton both considered them before deciding against it. Hadley is still in early stages of this issue, as it has yet to be brought in front of a selectboard.

How a taser works

Modern tasers shoot two small darts with barbs on the end that embed themselves in the attacker’s skin.
The gun delivers an electric shock through wires attached to the darts, with “neuro-muscular incapacitation being the goal,” according to Sgt. Mark Baran of the South Hadley Police Department.
A five-second electrical burst travels through the wires, causing the attacker to fall to the ground.
The reason tasers are an effective weapon is they don’t rely on pain being inflicted, working more effectively on those under chemical or other influences, according to Police Chief David LaBrie.
As a comparison, the amperage given off from a taser shot is four milliamps, while your everyday wall socket emits16 amps and a Christmas tree bulb gives off one amp, according to a graph provided by the police department.
The weapons are used by about 12,000 of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies worldwide, or 67 percent.