For police Taser use a balancing act

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(Host) Only about a dozen local police departments have the stun guns like "Tasers" that use an electric shock to restrain a suspect.

Last week, Brattleboro police used one on demonstrators, leading to an outcry in the community.

VPR’s Steve Zind profiles how three departments view the use of Tasers.

(Zind) The police department in Winooski has been using them for more than 15 years. Police chief Steve McQueen says the devices have been used hundreds of times over the years, but many times simply showing a suspect a stun gun is enough to do the job.

(McQueen) "They’re extremely effective. They’re a great deterrent. It’s appropriate when your dealing with someone who is actively resisting to display it, arc it, and say, look either stop resisting or I’m going to use this’. Most people have this inherent fear of electricity and they will comply, so officers don’t get hurt and the people we’re trying to take into custody don’t get hurt."

(Zind) McQueen says training, supervision and appropriate policies are the key to proper use of stun guns. As part of their training, Winooski officers use the devices on each other.

McQueen says without stun guns, his officers would have to use pepper spray or their batons – methods which he says have a greater chance of causing injury. He says there’s been no criticism of the use of stun guns in Winooski.

It’s a different story in Northfield. There, community concerns led the police department to get rid of four Tasers recently.

Northfield police chief Jeffrey Shaw says people still remember a time in the mid-1990s when members of the department were charged with a number of criminal activities.

(Shaw) "Part of that was that stun guns were used to make a guy spit out his tobacco."

(Zind) Shaw says at this point he’s not convinced that stun guns are necessary.

(Shaw) "We’re not here to cause people to be upset. We’re here to protect them. If there was something that really stood out and I could show that we’d like them as a tool and I really felt adamant about it, then we’d go ahead and go through the process."

(Zind) In Middlebury, police chief Thomas Hanley says his department is taking it’s time to study stun guns. Hanley says only in the past five years have the devices become standard equipment for departments.

(Hanley) "I want to see how they’re used. What are the policy implications? Are the effective as opposed to anything else we use?"

(Zind) For Middlebury and other small police departments the question of whether or not to equip themselves with stun guns is a matter of balancing the perceived benefits with the expense.

The devices cost roughly a thousand dollars each.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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