FAIRBANKS - The Taser remains a popular tool with local law enforcement agencies despite a weakness that came to light last month.
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A suspected thief resisted the shock and removed a probe from his body, disabling the Taser, according to the Fairbanks Police Department.
The encounter ended badly when the suspect then reportedly pulled a Baretta 9mm pistol on the police officer, and the officer shot the man, killing him.
The confrontation wasn't supposed to happen like that.
The Taser was supposed to subdue the suspect so the police officer could take him to jail unharmed.
A prong coming loose, accidentally or because a suspect has pulled one out, is not uncommon, law enforcement officials said. Even so, the Taser is preferred to other forms of force, such as fists, a baton or pepper spray, when officers deem force necessary.
"It has a lower potential for causing permanent injury," said Fairbanks police Sgt. Matt Soden, who instructs new officers on how to use the Taser.
The model used by all Fairbanks area law enforcement agencies is the Taser X26, made by Taser International. The model is not available for sale to the general public, according to the company's Web site.
Used correctly, the X26 can bring a person to their knees. Multiple deaths in the Lower 48 have been blamed on the Taser. Taser International says it has successfully fought multiple wrongful death lawsuits.
The Taser X26 works by sending out two probes with hooks on the end. Electrical pulses of up to 50,000 volts travel along the wires and into the body shocking a person's nervous system. The probes can cut through clothing.
A spokesman for Taser International said pulling out one probe can break the circuit.
"The Taser system can only cause incapacitation during its five-second application if the two probes remain attached to the body," said spokesman Steve Tuttle.
Police officers are trained to pause after the first, five-second stun to see if a suspect is willing to yield, according to Soden. Officers can continue shocking suspects who continue struggling.
Usually, a suspect gives up fighting after two or three shocks.
"There are reports, and I've been told that there are some people who train to defeat the Taser," Soden said. "It is something that we're aware of."
Fairbanks Police Chief Dan Hoffman said that before the Taser, officers used batons or their fists to subdue unruly suspects. The fights sometimes resulted in injuries.
"I have a very hard time justifying why you have to break someone's arms and legs," Hoffman said. "The Taser, in most cases, is highly effective. You can look at our use of force statistics. We make thousands of arrests per year, and the people who we are arresting receive almost no significant injury."
North Pole Police Chief Paul Lindhag said officers in his department rarely face situations calling for the Taser, but they each carry one.
"It's not an answer to everything, but it's an excellent tool," Lindhag said.
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