James A. Kimble
Twenty-one year old Michael Distefano already had one of his wrists handcuffed when he took a swing at the police officer trying to arrest him on shoplifting charges.
Salem police Sgt. James Chase stepped in, drawing his Taser, warning the Londonderry man that the dot of a laser trained on him meant he was about to fire. Distefano continued to yell and swear, but immediately gave up: better to be arrested on shoplifting charges than jolted with nearly 50,000 volts of electricity for a few seconds.
“Later, talking to Sgt. Chase, Mr. Distefano said he had been hit with a Taser before by Massachusetts State Police,” Salem Deputy police Chief William Ganley said. “As soon as he saw it again, that was it.”
The response by Distefano, who pleaded guilty in June to shoplifting clothes from a Salem Kmart, is typical, according to police. People who would usually scuffle or fight with police suddenly have a change of heart when faced with being shocked.
This summer, more and more police departments across Southern New Hampshire are incorporating the use of these electric stun guns.
Last week, Newton police officers began training with Tasers, which will be holstered alongside batons and pepper spray on their utility belts. Londonderry police, who also provide security for Manchester Airport, are buying seven Tasers, which retail for about $1,000 apiece. Windham police are training to use them as well.
Derry, which has 12 Tasers, wants to buy another 10, with the hope of eventually buying enough for all 59 of its officers. Londonderry is following in the footsteps of other area departments like Salem, Pelham and Newton by tapping drug-forfeiture money to help buy the devices. Kingston recently was given 15 Tasers through a private donation.
“A lot of the newer officers have the advantage of new training and new technology — and this is huge,” Ganley said. “With this, I think you’ll see less injury to officers and to suspects as a result.”
Unlike pepper spray, which can impair vision or breathing for nearly 45 minutes, people who are stunned recover within seconds, police said. A 5-second burst of voltage temporarily disrupts the nervous system. Many officers now using Tasers endure the shock themselves as they undergo training so they will understand the effects of the gun.
In departments with only a few officers, such as Chester and Newton, chiefs say officers feel more secure when they have to respond to calls or make arrests alone.
“In talking to the officers, I think they feel a lot more comfortable with using these than hitting someone with a baton, especially if you hit them in the wrong place,” Chester’s interim police Chief William Burke said.
Newton police Chief Larry Streeter, a former chief in Salisbury, Mass., said Tasers are now becoming a standard in policing.
“I’ve had the benefit of sitting back and watching other departments do the R&D; on it,” Streeter said. “It’s proven to be a good law enforcement tool.
“If a department doesn’t have this, they could really expose themselves to potential liability,” he added.
The case against Tasers
But not every department believes the tool is a must for law enforcement.
Plaistow Deputy police Chief Kathleen Jones said her department has, for now, ruled out buying Tasers because pepper spray is effective enough for the calls its officers respond to.
“We did look into it,” she said. “Our defensive tactics instructor took the training and is satisfied with the pepper spray that we use.”
When law enforcement around the country first began buying Tasers a few years ago, area police were hesitant to adopt them, especially in light of suspicions that they could harm people. A main critic of Taser use, the American Civil Liberties Union, has questioned whether the electric guns are truly safe, citing instances when people, especially those with heart problems or who are high on drugs, died days after being struck by a Taser.
But with widespread testing now complete on the devices, many local police chiefs now feel that not having them is almost a liability.
“There was a little bit of trepidation over reports of in-custody deaths,” said Pelham police Chief Joseph Roark, whose department began using Tasers three years ago. “Most of that has been ruled out and determined to be from other causes.
“We’ve had several successful deployments of Tasers, and we’ve remained complaint free,” he said. Just the sight of them, encourages aggressive people to think twice, he added.
“There’s no question that there’s an aspect of it being a psychological and visible deterrent,” Roark said. “They see that blue dot, and even if they’re extremely agitated or intoxicated, it clears their cloudy state.”
Sandown police Chief Joe Gordon, who trained with different types of batons during his years as an officer, also believes Tasers are a safer way to subdue unruly suspects. In fact, his officers no longer carry batons, just Tasers and pepper spray along with their firearms.
Knowing when to use them
Strict protocols outline when officers can use Tasers in confrontational situations, Gordon said.
“It’s not something we use loosely on somebody,” he said.
All local departments have policies on “use of force,” which detail when officers can use defensive weapons such as pepper spray, batons, and now Tasers. Officers go through about six hours of training and regular refresher courses.
Burke and other chiefs said there are few instances when Tasers are actually fired.
When hooked up to a computer, the gun allows police administrators to easily trace when and how often a Taser is used. When it is fired, the gun expels bits of confetti that show the serial number of a gun.
“It shows who fired a Taser,” Roark said. “That way, you don’t have a group of officers in a situation where one says, ‘I wasn’t the one who fired it.’ If one is obtained illegally, then it can be traced once it’s used.”
That serves as both protection from claims of the guns being misused and as an internal check for officers, he said.
Some newer Tasers even have video-and-audio capabilities that can be used as evidence in court cases. Ganley said the feature is similar to the video cameras installed on police cruisers.
But Ganley said New Hampshire laws would have to be amended before guns with audio and video recording could be used in this state. A provision of the state law already allows police to make audio and video recordings of traffic stops without permission.