Police get Tasers, defibrillators
One thousand volts of electricity restart a heart and can save a person’s life. Fifty thousand volts temporarily paralyze a person’s muscles in painful contractions. Steamboat Springs police officers soon will have the power to do both.
In about two weeks, officers will begin carrying X26 Taser stun guns and automatic Philips HeartStart defibrillators. The police department purchased six Tasers, each $835, and it was given three defibrillators, each $2,500, from a grant funded by the Colorado Rural Health Center. The Steamboat, Oak Creek and North Routt fire departments also received one defibrillator each. While local medical professionals welcomed the addition of defibrillators, controversy over the use of tasers by police departments has galvanized the state and nation.
More than 4,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide use Tasers, and officers have fired them more than 100,000 times. Although many recognize the potential advantages of the stun guns, recent deaths and reports of abuse have raised serious questions about their safety.
Similar in appearance to a handgun, a Taser shoots two fish-hook-type probes up to 21 feet. The probes stick into a person’s clothing or skin and deliver a 50,000-volt shock for five seconds, unless the officer terminates the shock sooner. The electricity causes the muscles to contract, temporarily disabling the person.
“The muscles tense up real hard, and it’s really painful when it’s occurring, but when it’s over, it’s like nothing happened, and there’s no after-effects,” Steamboat Springs Capt. Joel Rae said.
The Steamboat Springs Police Department purchased the Tasers to offer another alternative to lethal force, Rae said. The Tasers may help protect civilians and officers by enabling the officer to incapacitate a dangerous person from a distance, he said.
“If a Taser can prevent a deadly encounter, it’s worth its weight in gold,” he said.
He recalled several situations that he thinks would have benefited from Tasers. In one situation, an officer encountered a man threatening people with a fence post and backing away behind a barricade. In another case, “there was a suicidal lady with a razor blade to her neck. We eventually were able to talk her down, but the Taser would have been good to have,” he said.
Use causes controversy
The use of Tasers by police departments has sparked controversy, however.
A primary concern is the potential lethality of the Taser. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 52 people have died after being shocked by the Taser, and sheriffs in Forsyth County, Ga., have suspended use of Tasers after five people stunned by them died in the past nine months. Also, in Denver, Mayor John Hickenlooper has created a task force to examine, among other police reforms, how officers deploy the Tasers.
Although most studies rule out Tasers as the sole cause of death, a medical report by Dr. Terrence B. Allen in 1991 found that “certain medical conditions, including drug use and heart disease, may increase the risk that the Taser will be lethal” and that in at least one case “death was an immediate and direct result of the Taser.”
The Steamboat Springs Police Department acknowledges the danger, but officials say it has been accounted for.
“It’s a legitimate concern for us, as well,” Rae said. “That’s one of the things officers will have to evaluate, whether drugs or alcohol are present.”
Because of the risk for a lethal reaction to the shock, ACLU members argue that Tasers only should be used in situations when someone endangers human life or threatens serious bodily injury.
“The Taser, even when it doesn’t cause death, causes overwhelming unbearable and excruciating pain,” ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein said. “Where the crime is minor and there’s no risk of harm to others, it’s not a justifiable and appropriate use of force.”
“If someone says, ‘I’m not taking that traffic ticket, I’m walking away,’ some officers could interpret that as defensive resistance,” Silverstein said. He said such force would be unconstitutional because the Bill of Rights mandates that only an appropriate amount of force can be used. “That’s why it’s illegal to shoot someone who’s running from a traffic ticket.”
According to Steamboat’s police guidelines, the Taser can be used when a person is “defensively resisting,” which includes situations such as when they are resisting handcuffs, passively resisting or attempting to flee. The police department’s guidelines also stipulate that Tasers only be used when “other force options would be inappropriate or ineffective under the circumstances.”
“It could be (used in) a situation where someone else is armed with a knife or a club or punching an officer,” Rae said. The primary goal is to protect officers, third parties and the subject from serious bodily injury, he said.
Another concern about Tasers is the risk for officers to abuse it. The ACLU cites several examples of officers nationwide violating the conditions under which Tasers can be used. The organization reports that in one case, a handcuffed man was stunned eight times while handcuffed, and in another, a pregnant woman was “tased” in the abdomen while she was handcuffed in the back of a squad car. Police records from across the country show numerous similar incidences, the ACLU reports.
“I wonder how much of the promotion of the Taser as utterly harmless and safe tends to encourage police offers who want to administer a little punishment, sometimes called ‘contempt of cop,'” Silverstein said.
However, Rae said the Steamboat Springs Police Department has taken many precautions against such abuse. First, he said every officer will be trained with the Taser and will be zapped by it.
“No officer will go untased, just like every officer is sprayed with pepper spray,” Rae said. “It’s very important for officers to know the effects of the tool they’re using.”
Second, officers are required to report each time they fire the Taser, and the department will investigate any deployment, Rae said. As a backup, a computer chip in the Taser will record every firing, and that information will be downloaded into a database, he said.
“If there’s ever an incident where an officer didn’t comply with the guidelines for Taser use, it would be investigated, as would any excessive-use-of-force incident,” Rae said.
Overall, the safety advantages of the Tasers for citizens and officers outweigh its risks, Rae said, but police officers will work to minimize any dangers associated with the Taser.
In addition to the Tasers, officers on patrol or community service officers at large events also will carry defibrillators in case officers reach someone having heart trouble before an ambulance arrives.
While some controversy surrounds the introduction of the Tasers, local medical professionals hailed the new defibrillators as a great addition to the police force.
“There’s no question it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Larry Bookman, an emergency department physician at Yampa Valley Medical Center. “It’s one of those things that the sooner you can get defibrillation to a patient that needs it, the better the results are by a log shot. Time is the critical factor.”
People require defibrillation when their heart muscle is quivering without an organized beat, called ventricular fibrillation. As a result, the heart fails to pump blood to the body. Most often, this is caused by a heart attack or being struck by lightning.
A defibrillator restores the heart to its proper beating rhythm by, in a sense, “resetting” it.
“By delivering an electrical shock, it stuns the heart muscle and stops it for a second,” Bookman said. “The hope then is that the heart’s normal conduction mechanism will start up again and produce a good rhythm.”
Bookman and Steamboat Springs Police Sgt. Rich Brown said the defibrillators the police will carry are simple to use and are safeguarded against problems.
“Anyone who is trained in CPR and in automatic external defibrillation can use them,” Brown said.
To operate the defibrillator, the officer places disposable patches on the right side and the lower left side of the patient’s chest. The machine monitors the person’s heart rhythm and determines whether he or she requires a shock. If so, a large button with a lightning bolt lights up. When the button is pressed, the machine administers a shock to the heart.
“If the patient didn’t have a heart rhythm that would benefit, it wouldn’t defibrillate, so no one would get shocked who didn’t need to get shocked,” Bookman.
In addition to police officers carrying defibrillators, medical literature also supports expanding the placement of the defibrillators to such places as airports, sports stadiums, malls and airlines, he said.
“All of us in emergency medicine and all of the pre-hospital folk providers welcome the concept and think it certainly has potential significant benefit,” Bookman said.
— To reach Kristin Bjornsen, call 879-1502
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