Opinion: More discussion needed on the subject of tasers

Brenda Ellis raises important issues of public concern in her thoughtful letter about equipping Middlebury police with Tasers.
Originally touted by their manufacturers as non-lethal, tasers are now described as “less lethal” than guns — an entirely different matter. Amnesty International reports that more than 500 people died between 2001 and 2012 because of Tasers. In many more cases, serious non-lethal injuries have resulted. University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey Alpert led a recent U.S. Justice Department study. “When you get hit with a Taser you just go limp,” Alpert said. “Your muscles just don’t work. If you’re running away and you’re leaning forward and I shoot you in the back, then you’re going to go forward, and if it’s on cement you’re going to hit your face, you have no way to protect yourself.”
Tasers provide an alternative to firearms in situations where lethal use by police may be justified. There is evidence that Tasers have prevented many deaths or more serious injuries when used by police instead of guns in potentially fatal confrontations. Such situations unfortunately occur often in urban areas but rarely in small Vermont towns.
The problem is that Tasers are too frequently used in encounters between the public and the police where lethal force is not only clearly unjustified, but less violent options are available. Professor Alpert found that police used Tasers too early and too often. Certainly that has been the case in Vermont in several well-publicized cases. One police trainer told Alpert that Tasers often lead to “Lazy Cop Syndrome.” Rather than trying to control someone with their words or hands, “they simply went to the electricity.”
“There may be some more injuries if the officer uses the baton or his hands and fists, but it’s certainly going to be a better way of dealing with someone than simply by just shocking them with a Taser,” Alpert argues.
Do Middlebury police need Tasers? The fact that Vergennes officers have carried Tasers for 5 years and have never used them suggests that they are probably unnecessary for Middlebury’s force. Their value as deterrents is purely speculative. These weapons are expensive to purchase and maintain. Each has an initial cost well over $1,000 plus an annual fee of $571 and a $164 data download kit charge. Chief Hanley would like to acquire 16 Tasers. Aren’t there better uses for these taxpayer dollars?
Ms. Ellis also argues effectively for a stronger Taser use policy. Current policy states “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.” How can a police officer determine whether someone just encountered for the first time has a heart condition, suffers from epilepsy, is in the early months of pregnancy, or has other not readily apparent disabilities? Instructions on targeting or avoiding specific body areas are mostly wishful thinking when the subject is moving, turning or running.
Before we arm our officers with Tasers, there needs to be broader public discussion of the benefits and problems associated with these devices, appropriate limitation of use, and the creation of an independent civilian review board to examine the hopefully rare occasions when they are employed. The importance of this issue justifies placing the question on next year’s Town Meeting warning.
Michael and Judy Olinick

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