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Taser Use Spikes Amid Safety Concerns

May 31, 2005 | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Despite the growing controversy over the safety of Tasers, Pittsburgh police are quickly embracing the stun guns to subdue unruly people.

City police used Tasers on 42 people in the first three months of this year, compared to just six in all of 2004, when police made 686 use-of-force arrests. The most popular method of restraint -- wrestling or tackling suspects -- was used in 352 of those cases. Police used pepper spray in 102 instances.

The increasing reliance on Tasers by Pittsburgh police comes at a time when many other law enforcement agencies and local governments throughout the country are rethinking their policies.

In February, the Lucas County sheriff's office in Toledo, Ohio, stopped using Tasers when a man died after being shocked nine times. About the same time, the Chicago police department said it will not distribute any more Tasers to its officers while it investigates the device's use on a man who died and a teen who was injured. Last month, the police department in Lexington, Ky., announced that it won't buy more Tasers while awaiting the outcome of medical studies about the risks of the weapons.

Human rights groups say the growing popularity of Tasers is cause for alarm. Tasers are used by more than 7,000 police agencies, and blamed by Amnesty International in the deaths of more than 100 people in the U.S. and Canada since 1999. In a report released in March, Amnesty International said there were 13 Taser-related deaths in the U.S. and Canada in the first three months of this year, compared with six during the same period last year.

"There is not enough medical research that shows Tasers are safe," said Amnesty International spokesman Ed Jackson. "There needs to be more alternatives to lethal force. That Tasers are safe is fictitious."

The stun gun's manufacturer maintains that the devices are among the safest tools to subdue a violent person.

"While we understand the concerns of the public concerning the topic of in-custody deaths, there are medical experts who dispute the few cases, out of tens of thousands of life-saving uses, where a Taser device has been cited as a contributing factor to an in-custody death," said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International.

Tasers fire metal barbs that can temporarily disable someone by scrambling the electronic impulses sent by the brain to the rest of the body. The 50,000-volt shocks can incapacitate someone in a fraction of a second.

Pittsburgh police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. defends the weapon.

He expects that the stun guns will minimize officers' direct physical contact with people. He also hopes they will reduce injuries and the costs associated with them, such as workers' compensation claims, sick leave and disability.

The increasing use of Tasers corresponds with a surge in the number of Pittsburgh officers equipped with them.

About 190 city police officers carry Tasers today, up from just six last year, and 250 officers have completed the department's mandatory one-day training session, said McNeilly, who hopes to have all patrol officers and narcotics detectives armed with Tasers by the end of this year or early next year.

Al Arena, a project manager at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said a universal code of use should be adopted. The association recently issued a nine-page guideline suggesting how, and when, Tasers should be used.

McNeilly and his wife, police Cmdr. Catherine R. McNeilly, wrote the department's policy on Taser use last year. Tasers are not to be used as alternatives to deadly force, on people who have been pepper-sprayed, pregnant women, those threatening to commit suicide, children younger than 7, or people older than 70 "unless the encounter rises to the level of a deadly force situation," the policy states.

There are 163 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania that use Tasers. The state police are still evaluating them.

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