FREDERICK, Md. — Recruit Matt Cecil fidgeted nervously as one of his instructors, Frederick Police Officer Greg Santangelo, fixed the laser sights of an X26P Taser on his back.

“So, Cecil, tell me what’s good about Boston,” Santangelo asked last Monday as Cecil stood a few feet away with his back turned and both arms held firmly by two classmates. “Do you eat lobster up there a lot?”

Cecil, a Boston native who hopes to join the Oakland Police Department in Garrett County upon graduating from the academy, had a hard time concentrating on anything other than the stun gun he knew Santangelo was holding.

“Yes, I mean, uh … I’ll buy you some?” the recruit stammered, desperation creeping into his voice as he anticipated the shock. “Whatever you want, I’ll buy!”

“Well, you ask Officer Sullivan after the academy if that worked out for him,” Santangelo replied with a thin smile as he fired the Taser, causing Cecil to crumble in a heap of convulsions and swear words shouted through gritted teeth.

Fortunately for Cecil, one of the probes failed to penetrate his skin, which lessened the five-second shock he received to some degree as his classmates gently lowered him, face first, to the padded safety mat.

Unfortunately, Santangelo noticed the errant probe.

“Wait a minute! We had a clothing disconnect. What do we do when we have a clothing disconnect?” the instructor asked the class rhetorically.

Kneeling down next to where Cecil lay on his stomach, the instructor pressed the Taser directly to the recruit’s left leg and triggered another five-second burst — called a “drive stun” — causing Cecil to renew his convulsing and muffled imprecations.

During the short week before the Thanksgiving holiday, all of the able-bodied recruits in the Frederick Police Department’s 59th Academy Class were exposed to both Tasers and pepper spray — specifically oleoresin capsicum, or OC spray.

Two of the recruits were spared the Taser due to medical conditions — one of the recruits scars easily and the other was temporarily on doctor’s orders to avoid strenuous exercise, Santangelo said. Two others will be exposed to the OC spray at a later date due to temporary medical restrictions.

In the case of OC spray, which can easily be spread by touch or carried by the wind in a real-life confrontation, the reason for exposing the recruits was straightforward, Officer Dan Sullivan said last Tuesday.

“This allows them to understand what the suspect is going to experience and allows them to experience the agent so that they know they can fight through the agent — if they are exposed to it — and continue to do their job,” Sullivan said.

The recruits, after being sprayed across the forehead and allowing the mixture a second to run down their faces, ran an obstacle course designed to force them to open their eyes and fight through the discomfort.

At the end of the course, the recruits had to draw their practice guns on an instructor and correctly identify whether the instructor was holding a practice knife or a practice handgun, then order them to the ground.

Even up to 30 minutes after being sprayed, many of the recruits were still having difficulty keeping their eyes open as the instructors allowed them to wander around the training facility’s yard. Wide, bright red marks covered most of the students’ faces, and many of them used cardboard shooting targets to fan their faces.

“It feels like my face is on fire. It is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had,” said Peter McAdams, one of several recruits who intends to join the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office after graduating from the academy. “This is my third time getting exposed to OC, and it does not get easier the more you’ve been exposed.”

Although McAdams said the Taser was more painful during the five seconds that the charge lasts, overall, most recruits agreed the more intense pain of the Taser was preferable to the prolonged discomfort of OC spray.

“(With) the Taser, it’s five seconds that really stink, but as soon as it’s over? It’s over,” McAdams said, summing up his experiences. “Any day I’ll take a Taser over OC.”

While the company that manufactures the Taser devices used by the Frederick Police Department and the county sheriff’s office, Axon Enterprise Inc., has long defended the safety of its devices, a study published by Reuters in August revealed that 1,005 people have died after being stunned by Tasers nationwide since about 2000. Of those deaths, the use of a stun gun was ruled a cause or contributing factor in 153 cases.

Santangelo said the academy recognizes the safety concerns and now places Tasers higher up on their use-of-force spectrum, somewhere between the use of impact weapons such as batons and deadly force.

While most city police officers are still using the Axon company’s X26P stun guns, the department will soon switch to the X2 models used by the sheriff’s office. In addition to a backup shot, the X2 models also feature upgraded safety features.

Still, the burden falls first on officers in the field to use their weapons safely and responsibly, Santangelo said, which is why the department spends so much time drilling the recruits on each type of force.

“We limit the use of the Taser to those subjects who are an active threat to the officer, so we’re not going to use it on passive resistance (or) if someone is just trying to run away to get away from us,” Santangelo said.

Additionally, most people who are subjected to a Taser will either be sent to a hospital or be closely monitored by police and emergency rescue personnel.

Dan McDowell, a Frederick County sheriff’s deputy who helped Santangelo teach the Taser course, reminded the sheriff’s office recruits that their agency specifically requires any deputy who uses their Taser on someone to remain with that person for at least two hours.

Five paramedics from the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services were on hand for the Taser lesson Nov. 20, but their presence probably did little to ease the anxiety of the recruits.

As a reward for placing at the top of the class in the academy’s recent four-week firearms course, recruit Russell Herman was given the honor of being one of several students who were given a drive stun after the initial shock in order to demonstrate the technique.

Despite the pain, Herman took it in stride, recognizing the importance of learning as much as he can about the powerful tool he hopes to carry on his belt as a Washington County sheriff’s deputy.

“It was awful painful, but it was good. It definitely gives you more of a perspective of the tools you have on your belt and what they’re capable of doing,” Herman said.


Information from: The Frederick (Md.) News-Post, http://www.fredericknewspost.com