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Eugene police set aside plans for Tasers

The Register-Guard | January 3, 2005
By Rebecca Nolan 
 
Tasers will remain on Eugene police officers' wish lists instead of on their utility belts until controversy over their safety is resolved.

The department has suspended plans to train and arm a handful of patrol officers to test the technology on the street.

The department has other priorities right now, said Capt. Steve Swenson - namely, installing digital video cameras in patrol cars - and with Amnesty International, the ACLU and even the Defense Department calling for more tests on Taser safety, the department would just as soon sit tight.

"We'd like to see as many of those issues resolved before we implement (Tasers) in Eugene," Swenson said last week.

Across the river, the Springfield Police Department is proceeding with its efforts to acquire a half-dozen of the stun guns by the end of 2005. Meanwhile, Junction City police - whose officers were outfitted with Tasers two years ago - and other Taser-equipped agencies continue to sing the stun gun's praises.

"We're finding that it's a very good tool when it's used early in a confrontation to minimize injuries to officers, the person involved and third parties," Portland police officer Greg Pashley said. "It gives us another option."

Agencies across the nation have seen dramatic drops in the number of deadly force incidents and injuries after implementing Tasers.

The devices reduce injuries and save lives because they allow officers to deal with violent people without resorting to deadly force or putting themselves in harm's way, according to Arizona-based manufacturer Taser International. More than 6,000 police agencies in the United States and overseas use the Taser, which fires two fishhooklike probes into the clothes or skin of the unruly person. Insulated wire attaches the probes to the Taser unit. Officers can administer a 50,000-volt jolt from up to 25 feet away. The device can also be applied directly to the skin.

The person being "tased" loses muscular control and experiences excruciating pain that does not linger once the electrical pulse ends. The newest model, the Taser X26, costs $800.

The company says numerous studies have proven that its product is "nonlethal" and more effective than other alternatives such as pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean-Bag rounds.

But the device is not without controversy.

A 71-year-old partially blind Portland woman sued that city after she was pepper sprayed and tased by city police. And a 17-year-old SeaTac, Wash., boy was awarded $25,000 last fall to settle his claim against Seattle police, who shocked him four times in the back of the neck in July 2003.

Amnesty International called for police agencies to suspend the use of Tasers until an independent medical study can determine whether they're safe. The human rights organization issued a report in November decrying cases of Taser abuse - including use of the weapon on a 6-year-old boy in Florida and a handcuffed 9-year-old girl in Arizona - and linking 74 deaths in the U.S. and Canada to the electroshock weapons since June 2001.

Amnesty said it does not oppose Tasers, as long as they are used properly. But the organization's research showed that some police agencies are using Tasers to subdue noncompliant or disturbed people who don't pose a serious danger to themselves or others.

And a Department of Defense study recommended more research on how Tasers affect sensitive or intoxicated people.

That's part of the reason Eugene police are holding off on their pilot program, for now.

Because local police officers don't encounter many deadly force situations the need isn't as urgent. Eugene police have batons, pepper spray, beanbag guns and pepper ball guns to use as less-lethal alternatives to bullets.

If the department decides to acquire Tasers, the Eugene Police Commission will help develop the policies governing its use, and the public will have opportunities to comment.

"I would much rather have that at the front end than to introduce something that brings on public outcry and criticism later," Swenson said. "If you develop a sound, well-established, well-researched policy, it pays dividends in the end."


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