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Shocking Decision

Human-rights group troubled by Sheriff's Office's purchase of stun guns



Sheriff's Deputy Leslie Rude's whole body jerked, and she let out a groan as 50,000 volts of electricity surged through her body for about two seconds.

Two other officers held her up to keep her from collapsing as an instructor zapped her with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office's newest weapon, the Advanced Taser M-26 stun gun.

"That'll drop you," quipped Rude who volunteered to be stunned as part of a training session for deputies Tuesday -- after the shock was over.

The comment drew scattered laughs.

But not everybody is amused by the office's recent decision to use stun guns, described as "less than lethal" weapons intended to help police officers neutralize uncooperative suspects without harming them.

Amnesty International, which has labeled stun guns "tools of torture," is alarmed by the rapid increase in the number of law-enforcement agencies across the country that are using them.

Not proven safe

In recent years, Amnesty has issued reports raising questions about the safety of Tasers and other stun technology in one case specifically targeting the El Paso County Sheriff's Office for its use of "stun belts" to control jail inmates.

Tasers have been suspected as a factor in several deaths of inmates and people being arrested around the country, the organization has reported.

"First and foremost, we believe that these things have not been proven to be safe," said Dennis Palmieri, a San Franciscobased spokesman for Amnesty.

But that claim is disputed by Sheriff Terry Maketa, who decided to purchase more than $25,000 worth of Tasers this year and next, and by the weapons' manufacturer, Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"I'm stunned pardon the pun there at where they're coming from," said Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle, in regard to Amnesty's claims.

Person usually collapses

The M-26 works by shooting two small probes that are attached to the weapon by wires. The probes have small barbs that attach to skin or clothing. Upon making contact with its target, the weapon discharges electricity for up to five seconds. The electricity overwhelms the targeted person's nervous system, causing muscles to contract. The targeted person usually collapses but doesn't lose consciousness and feels no lingering pain afterward, according to the manufacturer.

Contrary to widespread belief, the shock does not cause a person to lose bladder control, Tuttle said.

The M-26 is considered accurate within a firing range of 3 to 18 feet, and is used by more than 1,850 law-enforcement agencies worldwide, according to Taser International.

Maketa says he decided to get the Tasers after he participated in a demonstration during a law-enforcement conference last October. During the demonstration, he volunteered to be shocked.

"I felt like every major muscle in my body contracted," Maketa recalled. "I would say it was powerful; it was probably a feeling of complete helplessness."

The Sheriff's Office has purchased 23 stun guns so far, at a cost of $399 each, and plans to acquire about 40 more in the next year. All told, the more than $25,000 worth of stun guns will be paid for with state and federal grants and internal budget reallocations, Maketa said.

The weapons won't be standard issue for deputies, but will be available in all squad cars and at certain stations inside the El Paso County Jail, he said.

Maketa said the weapons will give deputies a way to handle suspects who don't comply with verbal commands, short of using firearms.

Amnesty officials question the safety of the weapons, noting that there has been no comprehensive, peer-reviewed scientific study of their potential long-term medical effects.

"There have been a number of deaths while in custody, or deaths during arrest" linked to stun gun use, Palmieri said, adding that "stun guns and other electroshock weapons have not been conclusively cleared" in those deaths.

Inflicting pain

Moreover, there has been no major study of usage patterns to alleviate concerns that some officers may be tempted to use the weapons unnecessarily to inflict pain, Palmieri said.

The organization has called for a moratorium on Tasers until studies have been conducted and national training standards for the weapons have been put in place.

But Tuttle, of Taser International, notes that no coroner has ever officially listed a stun gun as a cause of death for anyone. He also claims the effects of stun guns have been extensively studied. Taser International itself has tracked 2,500 actual uses as well as tests on 4,000 volunteers, and has never found any long-term injuries to occur, Tuttle said.

The strength of the electrical current from an M-26 is only 0.162 amperes, far below levels considered harmful, he added.

To help prevent the possibility of frivolous use, each M-26 comes with a computer chip that records every use of the weapon, Tuttle also noted.

In Orange County, Fla., use of the M-26 by sheriff's deputies has decreased the number of injuries to both suspects and officers by reducing the use of other, more harmful weapons, Tuttle said.

"The proof is in the pudding," he concluded.

Never 100 percent safe

Maketa, meanwhile, said that "there's nothing 100 percent" safe when it comes to weapons. But the Tasers will primarily be used in situations where an officer might otherwise have to use a sidearm, "which I assure you is much more harmful than an electric device."

Maketa also said he's not overly concerned about excessive use.

"This is not something that we'll use where verbal commands will work," he said. "I don't expect it to be used a lot."

Terje Langeland

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