Taser use popular despite risk

From the Univesirty police to individual self-defense, Tasers are growing in demand.

Kevin Behr

Thousands of police departments employ the Taser electronic control device, despite criticism that the stun gun causes injury and possibly death.

According to the Web site for TASER International, manufacturer of the weapon, about 87 percent of police departments use the technology in the United States.

That number includes the University police.

Greg Hestness, the University police chief, said he brought stun guns to campus about a year and a half ago.

Since then, police used the devices four or five times, he said. But police have displayed the guns countless times to deter suspects from resisting police actions, Hestness said.

University police Deputy Chief Steve Johnson said every officer receives a Taser after training.

How a Taser works

The Taser shoots two small prongs attached to wires that stick to the person’s skin. Upon connection, a shock delivers 50,000 volts, cycling 19 times per second for five seconds, Johnson said.

The shock basically paralyzes the muscles between the leads, Steve Johnson said. In his training, he experienced one such shock.

“It is not pleasant; there is no resisting it,” he said. “I will not volunteer to do it again.”

The shock incapacitates the suspect and usually allows police to subdue the person.

To prevent abuse of the devices by officers, each Taser has a computer that records each time the device is turned on and used.

Dori Dinsmore, regional director of Amnesty International USA Midwest, said the computer chips don’t monitor the circumstances in which police used the Taser.

“Tasers certainly lend themselves to abuse,” she said. “One of the tricky things about Tasers is they don’t leave marks Ö. There have been some allegations made about Tasers being used once the civilians were already subdued.”

Safety concerns

An investigation by AIUSA found at least 220 people in the United States died after being shocked with Tasers, Dinsmore said.

She said Tasers were generally the secondary cause of death and only the deciding factor in a handful of cases.

AIUSA conducted the study to encourage communities and police departments to discuss potential issues with Tasers, including guidelines for when to use the devices and who would be exempt from being shocked, such as seniors, pregnant women and juveniles, Dinsmore said.

Steve Johnson said the University police never had any severe injuries or deaths related to Taser use.

Not just for police

Though Tasers have been exclusively available to law enforcement in the past, TASER International recently began offering consumers a smaller, more portable Taser on its Web site in four different colors: black pearl, titanium silver, electric blue and metallic pink.

The company requires buyers to pass a background check before they can activate their Taser. SureCheck provides the service and can be done online or over the phone.

Apple Valley Police Chief Scott Johnson said he’s never heard of SureCheck, and because a government agency doesn’t administer the background check, it’s easier for civilians to pass.

The ease in which civilians can get a Taser worries the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

Harlan Johnson, the executive director of the organization, said it stands firmly against allowing citizens to purchase Tasers. Its main concern is for the safety of officers and civilians, he said.

Harlan Johnson said he hoped Tasers wouldn’t be manufactured and marketed to civilians, but now that they have, a ban may be necessary to keep Tasers off streets.

“It would be a sexual predator’s dream to have a weapon like (a Taser) to use,” he said, referring to the Taser’s capability to incapacitate victims.

Steve Johnson said he was neither for nor against citizens purchasing Tasers, but agreed they would be dangerous in the hands of a criminal.

He also warned against purchasing a Taser, saying no self-defense tool is ever foolproof.

“If the shock can be delivered before they put their hands on you, it can buy you some time to get away,” he said. “But once the shock is over, they can get right back up.”

Jerry Rinehart, vice provost for Student Affairs, said the University wouldn’t have any problem with students carrying Tasers on campus.

“If they were carrying it around for self defense, like Mace, it would be in that same category,” he said.