The way Tasers have revolutionized police work is truly shocking.
Won’t put your hands behind your back? Zap!
Trying to swallow drugs? Zap!
Putting up a fight or just raising a fist? Zap!
Every day in the Valley, on average, at least one police officer pulls out one of the Scottsdale-made electric stun guns and uses it on an unruly or noncompliant crime suspect. Word has spread about the weapons so that ever more often, police need to merely display one to get someone to obey commands.
"The gang-bangers say, ‘Man’s got the chair, don’t (mess) with him,’ " said G.H. "Bud" Clark, a Taser trainer and SWAT team member for the Arizona Department of Public Safety. "It’s the best thing since sliced bread."
Critics say the devices may be to blame in several deaths nationwide, in which people shocked by the weapon suffered heart problems soon afterward. Tasers deliver 50,000 volts of electricity to the subject’s body. One such death occurred in July in Mesa.
The growing concerns about Tasers’ safety are dismissed outright by local police, who say the weapons have become an invaluable crimefighting tool and have never been linked directly to a death.
Taser International has proven resilient to negative press, though its stock price fluctuates wildly. Despite critical stories in July in The New York Times and Arizona Republic, Taser International has sold millions of dollars worth of stun guns in the last two months to the U.S. Army National Guard and police departments in El Paso, Texas, San Jose, Calif., Louisville, Ky., and other cities.
"We know what we’re doing," said Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle. The company denies Tasers have ever killed anyone.
Nearly 6,000 police departments in the United States and Canada now use the weapons, nearly 10 times as many as three years ago.
Tasers are even getting kudos from an unlikely source: Suspects.
"It’s a very useful method when you want to calm down a person that won’t be controlled," said Mesa resident Angel Chalin, 18. "It does help (police) a lot and prevents a lot of tragic things from happening."
Chalin was "under the influence" on June 5 when he got in a quarrel with a family member, according to Chalin and a police report. He later left his house, passed out and became combative when officers tried to wake him, the report states.
Getting shot with a Taser "felt like my body just froze," said Chalin, who was later charged with disorderly conduct.
"That really did change me," he said. "It made me think a lot."
Hugo Sanchez, 23, was shot with a Taser after a family fight, which are the type of calls in which Mesa police most often use the weapons.
On July 8, Sanchez was an angry young man who locked his parents out of their Mesa apartment, where he was living temporarily. Sanchez confirmed he had a knife in his hand when police came inside.
The electricity from the stun gun hit Sanchez with more pain than he has ever felt in his life, like he was "shocked by lightning," he said. "My right leg was up in the air. It was just shaking. I couldn’t really put it down."
The alternative could have been worse.
"Some officers are quick to pull out the gun," he said. "Before you shoot him, you might as well tase him."
Most Taser incidents involve an unarmed suspect. In one case last year, a Chandler police officer zapped a 13-year-old girl at the city library. According to a police report, the 5-foot-5, 120-pound girl had been causing a disturbance and struggled with two officers trying to escort her outside. The girl’s mother filed a use of force complaint, but a citizens’ panel earlier this year concluded the officers had not used excessive force.
Tempe and Scottsdale police have a higher threshhold for using a Taser than in some cities — in most cases, the subject must be attacking the officer.
In Mesa and Chandler, Tasers are used by police more often than any other method of applying force to a suspect. Police policy in those cities allows Tasers to be used at the slightest physical provocation.
"Why should I wait for him to punch me before I use the less-lethal weapon I have available to me?" asked Mesa police Sgt. Chuck Trapani.
Police don’t always wait for an aggressive act to use a Taser.
Earlier this year, Mesa police stopped a man on a bike and questioned him about drug use. The man reached in his pocket, pulled out a folded piece of paper and popped it in his mouth. The officers shoved the man to the ground and zapped him. His face now bleeding, the man spit out the paper and was later booked into jail on drug possession charges.
Police said Tasers typically do less harm to a person than other methods of force, but they can cause injuries. Tasers shoot two barbed darts more than 15 feet that stick in peoples’ skin. Officers also can remove the dart-launcher and touch a suspect with two metal prongs on the end of the gun-shaped weapon, which also can leave a mark.
Sometimes those shocked fall down and get scrapes — or worse. Mesa is facing a lawsuit after a man was shot with a Taser while perched in a tree. He broke his neck in the fall and is now a quadriplegic.
Yet police and representatives of Taser International claim the weapons have reduced both suspect and officer injuries, as well as the number of fatal police shootings. Data is lacking to prove either assertion for East Valley police departments.
Phoenix police say Tasers contributed to a recent drop in police-involved shootings. Phoenix shot conventional firearms at suspects an average of 26 times a year from 2000 to 2002. In 2003, after the department outfitted every patrol officer with a Taser, the numbers fell to 13. However, Phoenix officers have shot at 14 people so far this year.
Critics, including Amnesty International and the families of suspects who died after being shot with a Taser, maintain that for some people, Tasers are like a death sentence. In many cases that involve a death, the subject was high on drugs, acting in a bizarre fashion and shot with the Taser multiple times.
A 29-year-old Flagstaff man died on July 23, two days after threatening a store clerk and being zapped seven times by a Mesa police officer. Autopsy results are pending.
Tuttle noted that in addition to more than 50,000 known cases of using Tasers on crime suspects, more than 100,000 police and civilian volunteers have been shot with Tasers. None of those volunteers suffered heart problems, even though some of them had recently had heart surgery. Volunteers are usually not shocked repeatedly, however.
"We had a 76-year-old shareholder who had open heart surgery and a pacemaker," Tuttle said. "We allowed him to take the hit."
The man reported no problems, Tuttle said.