Vergennes police adding Tasers; officials cite safety, cost benefits

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Police Department has joined a small, but growing, list of state law enforcement agencies to add Taser stun guns to their equipment lists.
Chief George Merkel said the department now owns two $1,000 Tasers, which he believes are a safer tool for subduing suspects than other options at police officers’ disposal — physical restraint, pepper spray or batons.
Merkel said enough people are now familiar with Tasers that even their potential use can defuse situations.
“Our intent is not to use this device. Our intent is to use it as a deterrent as possible. If that will make people comply, fine. If they won’t, this is a much safer alternative than for me to go hands-on with somebody, for me to strike somebody with a baton, or even spray them,” Merkel said. “This is a phenomenal tool.”
City Manager Mel Hawley, who recommended the Tasers’ inclusion in the police budget that aldermen approved in late June, agreed with Merkel.
Hawley said Taser use has been shown to lead to fewer complaints and lawsuits against police officers than other uses of force.
“It’s a non-lethal weapon, and if you think about police officers, they carry a gun, and some have a baton, and any time an officer uses a gun or uses a baton you really run the risk of an excessive-force claim,” Hawley said. “It’s my understanding there’s far less liability from an excessive-force standpoint with a Taser as opposed to a conventional equipment.”
And, Hawley said, there are the twin issues of safety and cost. If Tasers can help the city’s small police department — which often deploys one officer per shift — avoid dangerous scuffles, that’s better for all involved.
“If they have to wrestle somebody to the ground, police officers get injured, so you get a workers’ compensation claim, and loss of time and loss of wages. And so there’s an advantage both to the officer, obviously,” he said. “And obviously it’s a better situation for eliminating or reducing workers’ compensation claims.”
According to research supplied by the manufacturer, officers’ injuries dropped by between 23 and 80 percent in seven metropolitan police departments in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Ohio and North Carolina once officers were equipped with Tasers.
In the six of those departments that tracked suspect injuries, those declined between 24 and 80 percent, according to the research.
In Vermont, according to a Sept. 15 Rutland Herald article, Burlington, Barre, Rutland, Brandon and Hardwick police already have Tasers, and Vermont State Police have operated a four-year pilot program that has convinced VSP leadership to look into buying 260 of the units. Merkel confirmed that Brattleboro police also have Tasers.
Merkel, in an interview in the department’s City Hall station, said there have been several incidents in Vergennes since he took over late last year in which Tasers would have been useful.
“We’ve had to hands-on with people. Right out here in the hallway was one of them,” Merkel said. “You’ve got to look at what’s going to happen. If I’ve got to wrestle with someone, and the two of us go to the floor, and somebody ends up dislocating a shoulder, breaking a finger, breaking a nose, whatever the case may be, you’ve got a situation there that is probably not as good as if I tase somebody.”
Tasers are about the size of a handgun, and when aimed display a laser dot on a target. They fire two prongs that penetrate about a quarter-inch and are wired back to the firing unit; they deliver a charge that peaks at about 1,200 volts and last up to five seconds. Their range is 25 feet.
The effect is instantaneous, painful, and short-lived, Merkel said. The charge locks up the muscles of whoever is struck during those five seconds.
“If I tase somebody, there’s five seconds of pain … I’m not going to minimize it. It’s excruciating pain,” he said. “But it’s five seconds. After five seconds, it’s over with, and the person can stand up and talk just like you and I are and function just like you and I are.”
The manufacturer claims one incident of cardiac arrest per 100,000 uses, compared to four for basketball, and 780 injuries per 100,000 incidents for punches or baton use.
Merkel said other research has shown Tasers to be safer than pepper, or “OC,” spray.
“Say the person I’m dealing with has an upper respiratory issue … OC spray will cause some problems. There have been more injuries from OC spray than there have been from Tasers. Far more,” he said.
A Vergennes officer must complete six hours of training, pass a test, and review the department’s use of force policy for Tasers before using one.
Merkel said Tasers will most often be used to persuade those who are resisting arrest to cooperate, to rein in those who are out of control through anger or substance abuse or both, or to disarm threatening or suicidal people. He said a Burlington officer told him that bar fights with police up there have dropped 80 percent since Tasers were deployed.
“The intent is to tase a person, bring him to an understanding he doesn’t want to get that a second time, and then instruct that person to put his hands behind his back,” Merkel said. “And if a person doesn’t do that, the probes are still in them, and they get it a second time until they comply. And it’s a lot safer for us and for the individual they are dealing with.”
With Tasers, Merkel hopes officers and citizens alike will end the day healthy.
“That’s our goal,” he said. “Everybody goes home safe, and nobody gets hurt.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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