Kroger killing puts Taser use in spotlight
Jan 20, 2013 (The Macon Telegraph - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
In the weeks since a Macon police officer fatally shot a man at a local grocery store, there has been a lot of talk about what nonlethal options the officer might have had.
Some City Council members have suggested that Sammie Davis Jr. might still be alive if officer Clayton Sutton had been carrying a Taser on his duty belt Dec. 21 along with a gun.
The Macon police SWAT team has used Tasers for about five years and the department has wanted to buy more, said Chief Mike Burns. Police are expecting the delivery of about 60 Tasers in the next month or so, he said.
Other area law enforcement agencies have differing views about the electronic control weapons best known by the Taser brand name.
Deputies in Jones and Monroe counties have chosen not to carry Tasers, and it's not because of a lack of money. They prefer other methods like pepper spray and control sticks.
"For us, Tasers just aren't a good fit for our agency," said Allison Selman-Willis, Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. "The risks associated with Taser use outweigh the benefits in our opinion."
In 2005, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police studied the use of Tasers, examining how they were being used, departments' policies and deaths attributed to Taser use, said Frank Rotondo, the association's executive director.
The Taser committee found that although some people died after being zapped with a Taser, medical examiners didn't rule the deaths to be solely caused by Taser use. The group ultimately concluded that "the benefits of electronic control weapons outweigh the risks," according to the committee's report.
In Jones County, deputies are awaiting the arrival of new guns that shoot cartridges of pepper spray 23 feet away. Sheriff Butch Reece said he prefers pepper spray and control sticks to Tasers because they're less invasive.
Patrol deputies in Bibb and Houston counties have used Tasers for about five years and tout their effectiveness. Warner Robins police have carried the devices since 2007.
"It gives us an option between the heavy hands and the handgun," said Bibb County sheriff's Capt. Charlie Gunnels.
What is a Taser
The first Tasers were introduced in the 1970s and have evolved with technological advances, said Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, the company that owns the Taser brand name.
Today's devices resemble a gun and fire cartridges loaded with two probes.
The probes -- straightened fish hooks with barbs -- can fly out up to 25 feet to reach a suspect, he said.
Both probes must make contact with a person to "create a circuit" that delivers a burst of electricity that lasts for 5 seconds, delivering a "light shock," Tuttle said.
The shock causes muscles to contract 19 times per second, rendering a person unable of performing any coordinated action and giving officers time to put on handcuffs, he said.
Gunnels said Bibb deputies must go through eight hours of training before they can carry a Taser. Training includes being zapped twice -- once with probes and a second time without them.
"You need to know what it feels like," he said.
Gunnels described the shock as feeling like your muscles are locking up, becoming stiff.
Suspects typically fall to the ground as they receive the 50,000 volts, he said.
But unlike pepper spray, the pain from the Taser is over after 5 seconds. The suspect feels weak for several minutes, but generally has no other lasting effects, Gunnels said.
As a precaution, deputies call an ambulance so emergency medical workers can check the suspect's health and remove the barbed probes.
Some Tasers are equipped with video cameras that also record audio any time officers turn off the safety and arm their devices, Tuttle said.
Tasers used by Macon police and those on order have the cameras, Burns said.
Any time an officer uses a Taser, a copy of the recording is sent to the SWAT commander along with a "use of force" report for review to see if there's been any policy violations, Burns said.
Houston County sheriff's Lt. Ronnie Harlow said most of his department's Tasers also have audio and video recording capabilities.
Tasers carried by Bibb deputies and Warner Robins police don't make any recordings.
Most police departments and sheriff's offices require Taser toters to submit "use of force" reports for review.
In more than five years of use, the reviews haven't found any policy violations at the Bibb and Houston sheriff's offices and Macon and Warner Robins police departments.
Harlow said Houston deputies have used Tasers about three times in the past month.
Bibb deputies average using them about twice a month, Gunnels said.
Since Bibb deputies started using Tasers, the number of on-the-job injuries -- dislocations, cuts and knee injuries -- from fighting with suspects has dropped significantly, Gunnels said.
"We're not going down and fighting with them," he said.
The 60 Tasers and cartridges being ordered for Macon police cost about $94,000.
Burns said he's requested money to buy Tasers in the past, but the budget items have either been reduced during the budget process or reappropriated for higher priority purchases such as cars, ammunition and pepper spray.
For example, the budget for the last fiscal year -- which ended June 30, 2012 -- included $78,500 to buy 25 Tasers; and last year's five-year capital plan for the department includes $50,000 each year for the same purpose.
If money was allocated for Tasers but they were never bought, it should have been the police department's responsibility to follow up on that, Public Safety Committee Chairman Virgil Watkins said.
Council members and the mayoral administration say that the onus was on the chief to make Tasers a serious priority.
Councilman Henry Gibson, who retired from the police department as a captain after 34 years' service, spoke up strongly about Tasers in a Monday council committee meeting.
"There has been no overt act, aggressively, to get Tasers for the police department," he said.
Gibson plans to ask for a budget amendment to pay for equipping at least front-line responders with Tasers quickly.
"Safety is the first thing I'm looking at. I don't want a citizen to be killed, and I certainly don't want an officer to be killed, if there's any way at all around it," he said.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. Staff writer Jim Gaines contributed to this report. To contact writer Amy Leigh Womack, call 744-4398.
___ (c)2013 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.) Visit The Macon Telegraph (Macon,
Ga.) at www.macon.com Distributed by MCT Information Services
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