Press-Republican

June 30, 2013

Tasers 'a useful tool,' police say

Officers describe sensation of current as unforgettable

By FELICIA KRIEG Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — When Plattsburgh City Police Officer Levi Ritter was shot with a Taser during training, he gasped for air.

“You can’t breathe,” he said. “It feels like your body is tensing up. What I felt also was the pulsing of the electricity.”

He called the effect “completely incapacitating.”

Afterward, Ritter felt as though he had done a strenuous weight-training workout.

“Your muscles are just exhausted in five seconds.”

‘USEFUL TOOL’

A number of police departments in this area make use of Tasers, including Plattsburgh City Police Department, the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department, the Malone Village Police Department and the Ticonderoga Police Department.

“It’s a useful tool,” said Sgt. Kevin Riley, the Taser instructor at Plattsburgh City Police Department. “Is this the cure-all? No.”

Taser refers to its product as a “conducted electrical weapon.”

“It’s a painful experience that causes the exposed portion of the body to experience an involuntarily reaction where you cannot control the muscles in the (affected) area,” said Sgt. William Dominy of the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department.

“A common misconception in the public that a Taser is an end-all, be-all, and that simply is not the case,” he said. “A Taser is not a replacement for deadly physical force.”

However, Dominy said, Tasers are invaluable to law enforcement.

“It’s a great tool that has been around for a very long time. It’s tried and true. It’s gone through multiple medical reviews, as well as legal reviews, and it’s found to be a proper use of force, typically, when it’s deployed.”

TRAINED TROOPERS

Only 212 Taser units are in use statewide by the State Police, said Darcy Wells, director of public information for the New York State Police.

“Hundreds of troopers are trained and are qualified to carry them. But all members will eventually be trained,” said Wells, who said she was not permitted to release how many troopers are in Troop B.

Troopers began carrying the weapon at the start of a pilot program that was announced in December 2010.

At that time, 12 Tasers were assigned to Troop B, which covers the North Country.

‘DETERRENT VALUE’

“The members in the field who are trained on them tell us that they have a deterrent value, that they are effective,” Wells said.

An eight-hour training program will certify a trooper to carry a Taser, she said.

The training includes stun gun familiarization and function, use of force, division policies and procedures, qualification and scenarios, Wells said.

“Prior to patrol, the Tasers are tested for operability and if there is found to be an issue with them, then they’re not used.”

USED INFREQUENTLY

Malone Police Department Chief Chris Premo said his department has had Tasers for the past four years.

“I would say we’ve used them five to six times a year,” he estimated.

All 13 members of the Malone Police Department are trained to use them, he said.

“They’ve been a great tool for us because a lot of times officers work alone.”

So far this year, Tasers were displayed by a Plattsburgh City Police officer four times and deployed only once, Riley said.

Ticonderoga Police Chief Mark Johns said his department started using the weapon in April of 2009.

All seven full-time and five part-time employees are trained to use them, Johns said.

Wells could not provide statistics on how often stun guns have been used by Troop B troopers on patrol.

TASER MALFUNCTION

Occasionally, Tasers do not function as expected.

On Dec. 30, 2012, Dusty Clark, 28, of Altona was shot and killed by a Clinton County Sheriff’s Department deputy after one of the probes from a Taser that the officer fired didn’t make contact.

According to court documents, the deputy deployed the weapon when Clark continued to hold a knife “in a threatening manner” after being warned multiple times to drop the weapon.

“That was the only instance where a deployment was not effective, but that was due to a second probe that did not make full contact,” Dominy said.

The department’s 21 deputies each carry a Taser; they have used them since June 2011, he said.

CAMERA ATTACHED

Plattsburgh City Police officers carry X-2 Tasers, which are more sophisticated than the X-26 model carried by State Police, the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department and the police departments in Malone and Ticonderoga.

On the X-2, a high-definition camera records both video and audio that captures the circumstances under which the stun gun is fired.

“You can’t fire the Taser without the camera being on.”

The same is true with the X-26 units at the Ticonderoga Police Department, Johns said.

All seven full-time employees and five part-time employees are trained to use the two Tasers the Ticonderoga Police Department owns.

The City Police currently have five X-2s, and 15 of the department’s 38 officers are certified to operate them, said Riley.

Riley is required to be re-certified every two years, and officers must be re-certified every year.

“Everyone gets shot in the back with a Taser” as part of the training, he said.

That is also true in Malone and Ticonderoga.

It is not mandatory for deputies at the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department or State Police troopers to be shot with a Taser to become certified to carry one.

However, Wells said, most troopers choose to do so as part of their training.

STRICT POLICIES

It is the policy of both Plattsburgh City Police and Ticonderoga Police to use a Taser on a suspect for no more than 15 seconds, or three five-second cycles.

For the Sheriff’s Department, it’s five cycles, Dominy said.

If a subject continues to be non-compliant, a Malone Village Police officer can continue as many cycles as it takes to get the person under control.

The departments use similar guidelines when it comes to Tasers.

The least number of cycles possible should be used to subdue the subject, Johns said.

Officers are not permitted to use stun guns on suspects who are children, pregnant, handcuffed, disabled or have certain known health conditions.

A Taser cannot be used on a person if the result could be serious injury or death, such as if the person is standing near a body of water and could drown if incapacitated, Riley said.

And it may not be deployed in areas where there are explosives or flammable agents, either.

In Ticonderoga, a person must be taken to a hospital for a medical evaluation if they are exposed to a Taser for three cycles, Johns said.

Anyone who is exposed to a Taser deployed by a City Police officer must go to the hospital, Riley said.

He described a situation where he was attempting to subdue a woman holding a knife, threatening to kill herself.

Once he displayed the Taser, she immediately dropped the knife, Riley said.

While officers recognize that a stun gun is a useful and possibly life-saving tool, they also are well aware of its impact on the person who is hit.

“It’s over fast, but you’ll never forget it,” Premo said.

Email Felicia Krieg: fkrieg@pressrepublican.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg

HOW A TASER FUNCTIONS Tasers affect the central, motor and sensory nervous systems; the motor nerves carry commands from the brain to the muscles. The Taser creates an electrical current that stimulates the motor nerves, causing "uncontrollable muscle contractions," according to a Taser manual used by Plattsburgh City Police. When the unit is fired, two probes, which look like small needles that are about an eighth of an inch thick, are driven into the suspect's skin. The probes are attached to a thin wire that resembles a thick fishing line. Both probes need to attach to the person for the Taser to have an effect, said Sgt. Kevin Riley of the Plattsburgh City Police Department. The X-26 Taser model is used by the New York State Police, Malone Village Police, Ticonderoga Police and the Clinton County Sheriff's Department. It contains one cartridge, giving the officer just one shot at the target. The Plattsburgh Police Department uses the X-2 Taser, which features a double cartridge, giving the officer the advantage of having more than one shot to complete the electrical circuit. Officers do not have to reload to fire the second probes. Theoretically, a suspect could end up with three probes embedded in his or her body, but the goal is to implant just two probes, one upper probe and one lower probe, Riley said. In the event that shots from the Taser miss the suspect, an officer can physically apply the Taser to the suspects body, ensuring efficacy, Riley said. Officers are trained to shoot suspects in the back, he said. Ideally, one probe will make contact with the lower back and the other with the upper thigh so that the body's largest muscle groups can be targeted, Riley said. The X-2 features what Taser calls a ARC warning signal, which, when initiated, displays the electrical current and the sound that accompanies it without firing the unit. But, oftentimes, the ARC warning isn't needed. "The display (of a Taser) a lot of times is going to be very effective," Riley said. The X-2 unit costs $950, and it's an additional $500 for the high-definition camera that is attached to each unit that will automatically begin recording when the Taser is used in any way, Riley said.