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Taser Gun Safety Is Questioned As 85 Die

Police agencies praise the devices, but chiefs ask them to reconsider

Feb 18, 2005 | The Detroit News

As police departments across Metro Detroit continue to equip their officers with Taser guns, an international group is questioning whether the weapons really are non-lethal.

Tasers, which jolt suspects with 50,000 volts of electricity, are responsible for the deaths of 85 people across the country, according to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an Atlanta-based civil rights group.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police is asking police agencies nationwide to reconsider their use of Taser guns.

More Metro Detroit police agencies are using the device. Late last year, Shelby Township, Utica, Sterling Heights and Center Line all were considering new purchases of Taser guns.

Police in many other area communities use them, saying they work as both a physical and psychological deterrent to violence and that they have had no problems with the guns.

"My guys think it's one of the best tools to come along in a long time," said Sgt. David Wenzel of the Rochester Police Department.

Rochester officers used a Taser last year on a suspect who struggled with them as they tried to take him into custody, Wenzel said.

Officers used the device so they could get handcuffs on him. They asked the man if he would behave when his cuffs were removed.

"He said, 'I'll do anything you ask as long as you don't use (the Taser gun) again," Wenzel said.

Taser International Inc., which makes the stun guns, has said they are among the safest ways to subdue a violent person.

But all communities don't embrace the weapons. Two years ago, facing pressure from groups such as the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, the Detroit City Council chose not to arm officers with the weapons.

Coalition spokesman Ron Scott said he was pleased to hear that the Tasers are receiving more scrutiny. He said more research is necessary to ensure safety.

"There needs to be more study done on the effects of Tasers," Scott said.

"There are a lot of things to be concerned about, including the disruption of pacemakers or proper training for police officers."

Deputies in Toledo suspended their use of stun guns after the death of a suspect who had been shocked nine times.

Lucas County Sheriff James Telb said Wednesday the department will not use Tasers again until more safety studies are conducted.

Last week, a 54-year-old man died in Chicago after a stun gun was used on him, and a teenager was seriously injured in a separate incident.

In July, Plymouth Township police shot 36-year-old Robert Steven VanBuren to death at a day care center after he had been shot at least once by a Taser gun.

Barbara VanBuren contends the Taser shots stunned her son, causing him to fall over. Police said he was grabbing for an officer's belt.

"Those Tasers I don't believe do their job," she said. "And they're not doing their job anywhere in the country. They're just terrible, terrible, terrible."

The VanBuren family has filed a $65 million lawsuit against Plymouth Township, charging negligence in Steven VanBuren's death.

Departments seeking funding for Tasers often tout the device's non-lethal impact, as well as the savings from reduced insurance premiums.

"Our insurance carrier strongly encourages us to use Tasers and other nonlethal devices," said Charles Craft, Troy police chief. "In some cases, they'll reimburse the costs of the Tasers to departments to encourage their use."

Nearly all of the 137 officers employed in Troy carry Tasers or keep them in their patrol vehicles

"Our policy, in cases where Tasers or chemical spray is used, calls for us to bring in a medical responder," he said. "They'll remove the probes and check the person out to make sure there are no complications."

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