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Study finds TASER use rarely results in serious injury

By Jason A. Smith

jsmith@henryherald.com

Following the release of findings from a nationwide study this week, medical and law-enforcement professionals are touting the use of electronic stun guns as essential in making safer arrests.

Doctors and police said TASERs and other "conducted electrical weapons" not only increase police officers' level of protection, but also minimize the risk of injury to suspects.

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center issued a report Thursday with details of a three-year study of 1,201 cases of stun gun usage by six police agencies in the U.S. The weapons, when activated, employ an electrical shock as a form of neuromuscular incapacitation.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Justice and led by Dr. William P. Bozeman, associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest.

The doctor said his research indicates a "surprisingly rare" incidence of injury involving the weapons.

Injuries were reported in one fourth of 1 percent of the cases studied, or three people.

The remainder received either no injuries, or mild ones such as scrapes and bruises.

"These weapons appear to be very safe, especially when compared to other options police have for subduing violent or combative suspects," Bozeman said in a written statement. "That is not to say that injuries and deaths are impossible. Police and medical personnel need to be aware of the potential for serious injury, and look for evidence that a person subdued by a TASER has been hurt."

Two of the subjects who sustained significant injuries, did so as a result of head injuries related to falls. The third person reportedly suffered from a rapid breakdown of muscle tissue.

The Henry County Police Department began using TASERs several years ago. About half of the officers at the agency are equipped with them now. Henry Police Capt. Jason Bolton said TASERs save the lives of officers and suspects alike by facilitating arrests without increasing the risk of injury.

"Imagine a suspect ignoring verbal commands from officers to place his hands behind his back," said Bolton. "He then takes a fighting stance and wants to brawl. Instead of becoming involved in a melee with him ... an officer armed with a TASER can stun him, thus immobilizing him, and then place him into custody. Although it doesn't feel pleasant, the moment the suspect complies, it's over with."

He said TASERs are not accompanied by "long-lasting effects" such as broken bones, or bruises which a suspect might sustain in a fight.

"Now place a weapon in that same suspect's hands, like a knife or a baseball bat, and you can appreciate the TASER even more," said Bolton.

Lt. Leo Hathaway is in charge of the training division at the Clayton County Police Department, and was one of the first proponents of bringing TASERs to the agency five years ago. Hathaway said his research prior to that time concerning the devices made him a believer in their value.

"I looked at agencies in different counties in Florida [that] had started using TASERs," said Hathaway. "For those departments, officer injuries were reduced by over 80 percent."

He said TASERs are more productive than tools such as pepper spray, which many departments have used for a number of years as a means of subduing suspects. One reason for that, he added, is because offenders have a better understanding of the "psychological effects" of those sprays. "Once they found out they could fight through [pepper spray], it wasn't as effective," Hathaway said.

Currently, about 280 Clayton officers are certified to use TASERs.

However not all of those individuals are equipped with them, because department policy dictates in order for a TASER to be issued to an officer, he or she must first be shocked with one of the devices.

Hathaway said he supports the agency's rule. "Officers [should] know exactly what effect the TASER is going to have on an offender, so they don't use them improperly," Hathaway said.

Some groups have been critical of the use of TASER-like devices, but Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the devices are more effective and safer for police to use, compared with firearms or other weapons.

"Nothing is foolproof, but it does give law enforcement officers an alternative use of force...by not relying solely on deadly physical force with violent suspects," Rotondo said.

He said although TASERs enable officers to avoid physical conflict with suspects in favor of a non-lethal use of force, police should still use their best judgment before discharging the devices.