Sunday July 22, 2012

High on a hallucinogen, an 18-year-old Dalton man was tased three times in February of last year by police who had responded to a report of domestic violence at the man's home.

Five-second blasts of 50,000 volts went from the lightweight, hand-held weapon into the man, shutting down his brain's ability to control his body, eventually allowing police to take him into custody.

The incident marked one of the 73 times that a police department in Berkshire County used a stun gun to subdue a suspect between 2006 -- when the weapons first were issued here -- and 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The numbers were provided by the five departments in the county that have used stun guns: Adams, Dalton, North Adams, Pittsfield and Williamstown.

Law enforcement agencies throughout the United States steadily have turned to these weapons, which the main manufacturer -- Arizona-based Taser International -- says are "non-lethal."

The guns' opponents, however, say
otherwise.

500 percent increase

Taser International says the weapons work by shooting an electric current that mimics and interferes with "the brain's communication with the muscles." The company compares the action to a telephone call getting interference from static on the line.

The number of times the weapons were fired by police agencies statewide increased by more than 500 percent from 2006 to 2008, according to a 2009 report from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The report is the most recent one available.

A representative of that office, along with officials from several police agencies, told The Eagle that the weapons are beneficial to the police and public.

"Electronic weapons can enhance officer safety, the public's safety, and reduce the risk of injury to the suspect in certain circumstances," Terrel Harris, the state office's communications director, said in an email. "Massachusetts is one of 50 states that allow for their appropriate use by trained law enforcement officials."

But the weapon's opponents say it is potentially lethal, especially when used on people suffering from pre-existing health conditions or those who are under the influence of stimulants.

While acknowledging the importance of police developing "non-lethal or ‘less-lethal' force options to decrease the risk of death or injury," Alex Edwards, a spokesman for Amnesty International, said in an email to The Eagle that his organization has "serious concerns about the use of electro-shock devices in law enforcement, both in regard to their safety and potential for misuse."

Amnesty International, the world's largest non-governmental human rights organization, said at least 500 Taser-related deaths have occurred in the United States since 2001.

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn shows a stun gun to a photographer. The photo was taken with a remote viewfinder and the gun was not pointed at
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn shows a stun gun to a photographer. The photo was taken with a remote viewfinder and the gun was not pointed at anyone. (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

The manufacturer disputes this claim, blaming the deaths on factors such as pre-existing medical conditions.

Besides Amnesty International, groups that have taken a stance against stun guns are the American Civil Liberties Union and police watchdog groups such as Policeabuse.com.

‘Valuable control device'

Stun-gun deaths associated with police use allegedly have occurred in two Massachusetts border states -- Vermont and New York -- but not in the commonwealth.

Police in Berkshire County say the weapons are an important tool in their arsenal and minimize injuries to officers and suspects.

"They're an incredibly valuable control device," said Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, a certified Taser instructor. "They are a part of our defensive tactics ... the same level of force as a baton or open hands."

Pittsfield has had Tasers since January of last year, and Wynn said he realizes his agency is using them at a time when "questions and controversies" surround the weapons. He pointed out, however, that there were similar issues when police began deploying pepper spray in the early 1990s.

"It's a tool like any other tool," he said.

The controversies surrounding the weapons center on their alleged cardiac risk and potential overuse by police.

In May, Dr. Douglas Zipes, a prominent cardiac electrophysiologist from Indian apolis, wrote an article -- published in the Journal of the American Heart Association -- which purportedly demonstrated that a shock from a Taser can produce sudden cardiac arrest and death. 

Last month, in Bradford, Vt., a state trooper tased an unarmed, epileptic man who died after being hit by the weapon.

The death of the man, 39, remains under investigation by police, and the findings will be sent to the state's attorney for Orange County and to the Vermont attorney general.

The trooper, who had been on paid leave since the incident, returned to active duty earlier this month.

Police said the man was tased in the chest when he acted aggressively and refused to lie on the ground when police ordered him to. The man's girlfriend alleged she told the officer of her boyfriend's medical condition before the officer tased him.

In March 2010, in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a 44-year-old man died after being tased in the leg by a Dutchess County Sheriff's deputy after the man's girlfriend called 911 to report that her boyfriend was behaving erratically because of drug use.

Law enforcement officials said the man's death was due to cocaine-induced arrhythmia. The man's family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Dutchess County.

N. Adams: ‘We're not bashful'

N. Adams: ‘We're not bashful'

In Massachusetts, police received approval to start using stun guns in 2004, when current presidential candidate Mitt Romney was governor.

In 2006, the Adams Police Department became the first agency in Berkshire County to obtain the weapons, and the department has used it only once, according to Police Chief Donald Poirot, who said the limited use likely was due to there being only one weapon and one certified officer on the force.

North Adams was issued Tasers shortly after Adams in 2006, but has used the weapons 45 more times than its neighboring town.

E. John Morocco, North Adams' public safety commissioner, said the city uses them "a lot," declaring: "We're not bashful; they do work."

Morocco said the guns are better than pepper spray or a club because with a baton, there is a likelihood of bruising or a broken bone for the suspect, and with pepper spray, the effects last longer than those of a Taser.

"Getting shocked lasts only a couple of seconds, with the after-effects lasting a few minutes," Morocco said, adding that there have been no serious injuries related to police use of the weapons in North Adams.

Between 2006 and 2010, North Adams Police used a Taser 39 times, just two fewer than Lawrence, a city that is roughly five times the size of North Adams.

The Pittsfield Police Department, meanwhile, reported that it used stun guns 24 times from Jan. 30, 2011 -- just after they came into use by the agency -- through the end of the year.

In Dalton and Williams town, police in each department have used stun guns only once since they became available in 2009.

The suspect in the Williamstown incident -- a 19-year-old man -- was tased when he allegedly rushed a police officer after an early-morning car chase ended last September.

Gun policies

At Amnesty International, Edwards said his organization has concerns that police consider stun guns "a relatively low-level force option to subdue non-compliant or disturbed individuals who do not pose a significant threat."

He said various police agencies in the United States have used the weapons on "schoolchildren, pregnant women, people who are mentally ill or intoxicated, elderly people with dementia, and individuals suffering from medical conditions such as epileptic seizures."

Edwards said Amnesty International considers the use of electro-shock weapons in such circumstances inconsistent with international standards that require police to use force only as a last resort.

In the Berkshires, various police departments have similar policies on Taser use. In Pittsfield, only officers who have completed training by the Taser company and by the state are permitted to use the weapons.

The policy in Pittsfield states that officers should only "energize the subject the least number of times and no longer than necessary" to get them into custody and should "avoid aiming at the head or neck unless the encounter justifies a deadly force response."

The policy prohibits the use of Tasers in a "punitive or coercive manner" and says they shouldn't be used on handcuffed prisoners "unless" their "very assaultive behavior" can't be dealt with in a "less intrusive manner."

Wynn said each Taser use is reviewed, and to his knowledge, each deployment was justified.

Other police agencies in the county have similar policies.

In North Adams, the policy was put to the test in 2009 after a police officer assaulted a suspect who was in custody.

In March of that year, the officer, Joshua N. Mantello, was fired and later received a six-month jail sentence for using excessive force the previous year while booking an intoxicated suspect.

Mantello initially was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon for tasing the suspect, Matthew D. Trombley of North Adams.

Although Mantello ultimately was found not guilty of the assault charge, he was found guilty of several other charges for choking and hitting Trombley, as well as filing a false report.

While the stun-gun controversy goes on, at least one local police agency -- Adams -- recently purchased four more Tasers.

Poirot, the department's leader, said his officers will be trained in-house in the weapons' use, and the officers can choose whether to carry them.

Poirot said the mere presence of the weapons in possession of an Adams officer can deter suspects.

His department chose yellow stun guns to make them stand out to would-be criminals.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To reach Andrew Amelinckx:
aamelinckx@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6249.
On Twitter: @BE_TheAmelinckx

Stun-gun use in the county

In 2006, Adams and North Adams became the first police agencies in Berkshire County to issue stun guns to their officers. The first stun gun deployed in the county came the following year, in North Adams. With five Berkshire communities now using the weapons, the deployment numbers have increased. (In the following chart, NA signifies years in which towns or cities didn't have stun guns.)

Year Adams Dalton N. Adams Pittsfield Williamstown

2006 0 NA 0 NA NA

2007 0 NA 1 NA NA

2008 0 NA 24 NA NA

2009 0 0 10 NA 0

2010 1 0 4 NA 0

2011 0 1 7 24 1

Totals 1 1 46 24 1

Total use in all five communities: 73 times

Stun-gun facts

n Stun guns, also known as Conducted Energy Devices, or CEDs, can be used in two ways. The most common method is called a probe deployment, in which two darts are fired from the gun and attach to the skin or clothes of a person, sending five-second bursts of 50,000 volts of electricity through insulated wires connected to the gun. CEDs also can require the user to physically touch the gun's barrel to the subject, producing a painful, but not incapacitating, shock. Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn said the probe deployment is the preferred method.

n Taser is a brand name for a stun gun. Aerospace scientist Jack Cover began developing the Taser in the late 1960s and named it after a 1911 young adult book "Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle," in which the eponymous hero builds a firearm that shoots electricity. Swift uses it to hunt elephants and save his friends from rogue Pygmies. Cover's Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle (TASER) was patented in 1972.

n Taser International, the main manufacturer and distributor of stun guns, didn't specifically target its product to law enforcement until 1998.

Sources: Pittsfield Police Department, The New York Times, Taser International.