Middlebury police opt for Tasers as non-lethal alternative

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday green-lighted their local police department’s proposal to acquire Tasers, a device that officials believe will better enable officers to control aggressive and assaultive suspects without having to resort to deadly force.
“Taser” is the product name for what police refer to as a “Conducted Electrical Weapon (CEW)” that uses an electrical charge to disrupt muscle control in a suspect to which it is applied.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley stressed that Tasers — currently in use by the Vergennes Police Department and Vermont State Police — are used by authorities not as a punitive measure, but to immobilize and then gain control of combative suspects and therefore avoid the alternative of using a firearm.
It can fire two small dart-like electrodes into a suspect, or can deliver a shock when held up against a subject.
Hanley has learned a lot about Tasers in recent months and has achieved a comfort level with a device that has at times been the target of criticism when its deployment has contributed to the deaths of people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Hanley was a voting member of Vermont’s Law Enforcement Advisory Board, which developed a model statewide policy on CEW use. That policy on how police departments should use Tasers, or “stun guns,” was mandated as part of a law signed last year by Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Hearings on policy development were held throughout the state during which law enforcement, special interest groups and the public at large — as well as people who had been Tased —  provided testimony. The committee also heard from the American Civil Liberties Union, Vermont Defender General, advocates for people with disabilities, the Vermont Attorney General’s office and state’s attorneys. The advisory board established a model policy based on public feedback.
 “We’ve been looking at this for a number of years,” Hanley said of his department. “We started examining the Taser five- to seven years ago, when they first came out. There were some use issues with it, some inappropriate uses of the Taser over the years, so we were a little bit concerned about that. But as things have evolved and the technology has improved drastically, as far as monitoring the use of these things and being able to download data, some of the policy development has matured, so we are pretty confident this could be a useful tool for us.”
A useful tool only under specific circumstances, Hanley qualified. Middlebury police officers will receive special training on how, and when, to use the devices. These are mostly cases when an unarmed suspect chooses to fight with police rather than be taken into custody peacefully.
 “What has happened is our intermediate kind of force — if someone is fighting with us, if they are aggressive or hostile, but they don’t have a firearm or knife — we have had to rely on certain defensive tactics that we use, or we’ve had to use the nightstick or the pepper spray,” Hanley said.
Those techniques haven’t always paid off.
“The pepper spray has very limited use,” Hanley explained. “It can be effective, but the use is quite limited. You can’t use it out in the wind, obviously, and it is really no good outdoors at all. And there are limits to using it inside, because it’s something that aerates and anyone can be affected by it — even the officers themselves. So they avoid using it, because they can end up being sprayed themselves in addition to the (suspect).”
Given the limited usefulness of pepper spray, Middlebury officers have had to rely on what Hanley described as “pain compliance” tactics to subdue aggressive suspects. That includes getting suspects into various holds to prevent them from injuring police or nearby citizens. Pain compliance tactics can also be painful for officers.
“Our officers have had joint issues, and any time you are engaging someone person-to-person, you risk then getting spit on, bitten,” Hanley noted. “One officer is still suffering the effects of a shoulder injury due to restraining a violent adversary.
“What we really want to be able to do is take someone into custody without having to physically engage them,” he added.
There was a period, before the advent of Tasers, when police departments placed a premium on hiring very tall, strong men who could overpower a suspect, according to Hanley.
But times have changed. New recruits now, of course, include both genders and people of all sizes.
“We’re looking at a different means of force now,” Hanley said.
Hanley harkened back to an incident that occurred last year in front of the Swift House Inn involving a person with a mental health issue who wrestled with police on North Pleasant Street.
“Pain compliance techniques didn’t work (on the suspect),” Hanley said. “One of our officers got hurt in that fracas.”
Officers called Vermont State Police for backup. The trooper arrived with a Taser. The suspect looked at the device and quickly gave up, according to Hanley.
“Just the (display of the Taser) was enough to have the guy give up,” Hanley said.
Middlebury’s CEW policy calls for an officer, among other things, to:
•  Provide a warning, if possible, to the targeted suspect prior to deploying the Taser.
•  Deploy the Taser only under specific circumstances, such as if a suspect is acting in a manner that is likely to result in injury to that person, the police or others; to deter vicious or aggressive animals that are threatening the officer or others.
•  Make a reasonable effort to avoid deployment to a person’s head, neck, chest, genitals, female breast and stomach of a pregnant woman.
•  Target a specific area on the suspect. From the front, the preferred target area is a horizontal line approximately 2 inches lower than the sternum and below. From the back, the preferred target area is below a horizontal line drawn even with the shoulders across the neck and below.
•  Use discretion in dealing with subjects that the officer has reason to believe might be cognitively impaired; have a disability that might prevent them from understanding/obeying instructions; be under 18, pregnant or over 65; and/or suffering from a heart condition or epilepsy.
Now that Middlebury police have their own CEW policy and permission to go forward, the department plans to buy three Tasers annually en route to a targeted total of 16. That would provide a Taser for each uniformed officer and two spares.
Each Taser costs $1,016. There is also an annual fee of $571 and a $164 charge for the data download kit that will allow the department to document use of the device.
“I am anticipating a minimum of 10 years life on the device, and of course batteries and cartridges must be replaced,” Hanley said. “I have been monitoring Taser use and development for many years now, and with this latest product I am confident they will protect our officers as well as protect those who may be subject to use with minimal risk.”
Vergennes police have had Tasers since 2010. Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said his officers have fortunately not had to use them — yet.
“They are a great deterrent,” Merkel said. “It’s one more tool for the tool belt.”
Merkel stressed his officers have received good training on the use of Tasers but are encouraged to defuse potentially volatile situations by talking to suspects.
He called Middlebury’s decision to acquire Tasers “a great decision on their part.”
Bristol Police have yet to make such a decision, according to Chief Kevin Gibbs.
“We are not currently using Tasers,” Gibbs said through an email. “We had plans to equip with them, but put those plans on hold when the Legislature got involved. We are currently evaluating if we will go forward given the state mandated policy.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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