ANCHORAGE - Alaska State Troopers and Anchorage police are moving ahead with plans to outfit officers with more and better Tasers despite growing controversy about the electro-shock guns nationwide, including a million-dollar judgment in Alaska related to Taser abuse.
Top officials at both agencies said the weapons - which sock a person with 50,000 volts of electricity, temporarily disabling them - help avoid lethal force and reduce the risk of serious injury to officers and citizens.
But critics, citing deaths of people who have been shocked, say not enough is known about the physical effects of Tasers, especially on people with heart problems. They fear officers resort to them too easily.
Hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide use the weapons.
"It can be an effective tool in certain circumstances, but I think police get Taser-happy," said Bethel attorney David Henderson, who won a $1.08 million judgment in October for a man who claims a trooper tortured him with a Taser. Troopers deny that claim and have appealed the jury's decision.
Of the tens of thousands of people who have been shocked with Tasers by law enforcement officials, more than 80 died in the hours or days afterward, according to a front-page article last month in The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times last month reported the number of deaths connected with use of Tasers at "nearly 100."
Tasers have rarely been cited by medical examiners in the deaths, but organizations such as Amnesty International are calling for more research to see if the weapon really is "nonlethal," as manufacturer Taser International Inc. claims.
A U.S. Justice Department-funded study on Tasers is due out by 2006, but in the meantime, police and troopers say they have no plans to curb use of the weapons.
Tasers have been phased in slowly at the Anchorage Police Department. Part of the reason is cost: The latest Taser models run about $1,000 apiece. But officials have also said they want to make sure the weapons are a good fit.
"When the big controversy came out with Tasers, we did slow things down," deputy police chief Audie Holloway said. "We read the research, and the command staff here even went through training with them and got Tasered."
Both troopers and Anchorage police require that officers get shocked when they go through Taser training, mostly to help them understand when they wouldn't want to use the weapons, such as when a suspect could fall from a great height.
Anchorage police have shocked 18 suspects since they first issued the weapons to SWAT team members in early 2003, according to police, who this month released a list of the dates and circumstances of the episodes. Just under half were suicide interventions.
"The Taser, quite frankly, is not something we use a whole lot of," said officer Matthew Bloodgood, who is in charge of Taser training at APD and compiled the list. "We're not running out there Tasing everybody at the drop of a hat."
The most recent Taser episode by Anchorage police, late last month, involved a 16-year-old and illustrates why the weapons are so valuable, Capt. Bill Miller said.
It was around 1:30 a.m. when officers responded to reports of a prowler, Miller said. There, they found the 16-year-old standing in the street babbling with a knife in his hand.
The weapon would turn out to be a butter knife, but there was no way for officers to know that at the time, Miller said. Nor did they know the boy had a mental disability and liked to re-enact things he saw on television, which his family would later explain. In this case, he was pretending to be a hood from Chicago.
The kid appeared to stab himself in the chest and at one point lunged at officers with the knife, ignoring commands to drop it, Miller said.
Police aimed a Taser at the boy and pulled the trigger. A five-second jolt knocked the 16-year-old to the ground and the knife out of his hand.
The boy's mother "is pretty happy about the result of this whole thing," Miller said, although she declined to comment when asked by police to be interviewed for this story.
Tasers are far more common among troopers, who started using them five years ago. All troopers who work the street, as well as court service officers, and village public safety officers trained by the Alaska Department of Public Safety - more than 400 people - are equipped with the weapons, said trooper Director Col. Julia Grimes.
"We expect our troopers to respond to very high-risk calls, oftentimes in areas where they are alone with no backup even close," Grimes said. "We want to equip them with all the tools we can."
The same goes for the state's 60 to 65 VPSOs, who do not carry firearms and are often the first responders to crimes in isolated villages, Grimes said.
At both law enforcement agencies, a thorough review is done each time a Taser is used to determine if the use was justified and reasonable.
The most common reason troopers have used Tasers has been "encountering active resistance," Grimes said. She said one trend troopers are seeing is that the threat of getting shocked is a deterrent. "Merely displaying the Taser is gaining compliance. To us, that's a positive sign," she said.
The Alaska Civil Liberties Union hasn't received complaints about Taser abuse in Alaska, according to its executive director, Michael Macleod-Ball, but the courts have.
Kevin Patrick, 33, claims he was shocked seven times with a Taser after being handcuffed by trooper Eric Spitzer near Bethel on Dec. 18, 2002.
Patrick was accused of assaulting a village police officer with a shovel, escaping from a village holding cell while on a bathroom break and driving drunk on a snowmachine. Troopers have also said they thought he was armed with a gun and suicidal.
Spitzer has denied shocking Patrick after he was handcuffed, and Grimes continues to back the officer's verion of events.
Police and troopers both said their Taser-use policies are under revision and declined to release a copy of them.
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