Hancock County officials say stun guns are valuable part of sheriff's arsenal, help save lives

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GREENFIELD, Indiana — It started with a shout, followed by a click and pop.

Beverly Wyatt's body jolted as she was hit with a stun. An electric shock spread through her body, locking her muscles and making her go rigid. It crawled up into her jaw, freezing all movement there and preventing an expletive from fully leaving Wyatt's lips.

It was out of pure curiosity that Wyatt volunteered to take part in a recent demonstration at the Hancock County Sheriff's Department on how to properly use the devices local law enforcement officers say are essential to their work. Commonly known by the brand name Taser, stun guns have become a ubiquitous police tool, locally and nationally. Statistics show more than 17,800 law enforcement officers nationwide now carry the devices.

Stun guns are used to immobilize unruly suspects, and officers say they save lives. They are generally viewed as a nonlethal use of force, but they are not without risk. A 2012 study by the American Heart Association found a shock from a 50,000-volt stun gun can lead to cardiac arrest or death, and suspects have suffered fatal injuries from falling after being shot with one.

Stun gun use is fairly rare in Hancock County. The sheriff's department used the devices nine times in the past year, and the Greenfield Police Department averages 11 Taser incidents a year. Still, officers say these weapons are essential to keep officers safe on the job, and proper training prevents injuries.

By delivering a five-second electric shock, the stun gun locks the suspect's muscles, preventing movement and giving police officers time to safely apprehend the suspect, Hancock County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Brad Burkhart said.

"The goal is to get (the suspect) to comply with the officer," Burkhart said. "We can get them to go from being a jerk to saying they are sorry and cooperating."

Taser International Inc. began selling its stun guns in 1994. By the early 2000s, the company had reduced the size of the devices, making them easy to fit on police utility belts.

The sheriff's department implemented its stun gun program in 2004, Burkhart said, adding the devices to the list of nonlethal weapons deputies were instructed to carry. Now, 63 deputies carry Tasers along with a baton and pepper spray.

Any time an office has to exert physical force on a suspect or use a weapon to get them to comply, it is considered a use-of-force situation, Burkhart said.

Stun guns are the most effective use-of-force tool officers have in their arsenal because of the guns' consistent results and low risk of injury, Burkhart said.

That's not to say there haven't been instances when stun guns have caused serious injury or death. In January, a Minnesota man died from blunt-force trauma after striking his head following a Taser's blast.

Local officers say they recognize the risks, and they're grateful such a scenario has never happened in Hancock County.

In his experience, Burkhart said, most injuries come from the probes that are shot into a suspect when the Taser is fired or minor scrapes and bruises from a subsequent fall.

Nine incidents required the use of a stun gun in the past year, he said. Three occurred in the Hancock County Jail, and the rest occurred while officers were on road patrol.

Stun guns work by sending a high-voltage shock into the body. When a stun gun's trigger is pulled, two metal fishhook-like probes attached to long wires deploy from the device. Once the probes come in contact with a person's body, the electric current traveling through the wires is transferred into their nervous system and muscles.

The probes stay in place until an officer removes them or a suspect tears away, Burkhart said. This means that if one stun does not get the suspect to comply, and the probes are connected, further jolts can be delivered by pulling the trigger again.

Burkhart recalled having to use his stun gun 12 times on one suspect in order to get the man to comply. The suspect was on drugs, which dulled his perception of the stun gun's effects. Each time he attempted to fight officers, he was hit with another blast.

But that scenario is rare; most suspects are quick to comply after one shot, Burkhart said.

The shock delivered by a stun gun is high voltage but low amperage, Burkhart said. This means the shock contains a low amount of electricity and is therefore less painful. But the high amount of electrical force makes muscle movements nearly impossible, he said.

Those who have been shot with the stun gun said the feeling is almost indescribable. It doesn't exactly hurt, Wyatt said after going one-on-one with the device, but she certainly wouldn't want to go through it again.

"You know it's five seconds, so you're trying to count (while thinking), 'Please stop, please stop, please stop,'" Wyatt said.

Officers are trained to know when use of a stun gun is acceptable, said Greenfield Police Department Capt. Brian Guinn. Part of that training teaches them to communicate effectively with other officers on the scene in order to ensure safety.

"In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to make a mistake," Guinn said. "(Officers) must yell, 'Taser, Taser, Taser' before they fire, (because) it makes a popping sound; we don't want other officers to fire their pistols because they think they are being fired at."

Stun guns reduce the risk of injury for both the officer and suspect involved, Guinn said; hand-to-hand physical encounters are far more dangerous. Since the department began using stun guns in 2004, officers have used their devices 102 times, an average of 11 a year, Guinn said.

Officers are trained to aim their stun guns to the back of the body — or "no dart to the heart," as Burkhart phrased it — to reduce the risk of injury to the suspect.

In the field, officers must be aware of conditions that could affect a suspect's risk factors. Burkhart said that can involve making an educated guess. An overweight suspect who flees from police, for example, already could have stress on the heart that would be exacerbated by a stun gun.

The recovery time after a stun gun is used on a suspect is almost immediate, leading some to resume the fight, Fortville Police Department Lt. Patrick Bratton said.

Officers are taught use the five-second stun time to "cuff under power," Bratton said.

In order to keep stun gun use as safe as possible, officers are required to complete an eight-hour training course and update their certification annually. Each department has its own policy for when stun gun use is acceptable.

After Greenfield officers use a stun gun, they must complete a use-of-force report, Guinn said. They must relay the severity of the suspect's crime or behavior, whether the suspect was resisting arrest or evading law enforcement and whether the suspect posed direct danger to themselves, the officers or others.

Greenfield and Fortville police departments require officers to experience a stun before they are allowed to carry one. The sheriff's department doesn't require deputies to take a hit, but it's recommended.

The idea is officers will be more judicious using the weapon if they know from personal experience how it feels.

Fortville police officers also are required to have pepper spray used on them before they can carry it, Bratton said. The department's use-of-force policy states that if a suspect has had pepper spray used on them, the officer cannot then also shoot them with a stun gun. There are no exceptions, he said.

Officers are taught to use the least amount of force necessary to subdue a suspect, officers said. Fortville officers use their stun guns an average of six times a year, but the threat of force is often just as effective, he said.

Everyone has seen what a stun gun can do, and for some just seeing the device is enough to make them obey the officer.

It's not uncommon to hear a person apologize for their behavior after having been stunned, officers said.

Bratton recalled a time when a troubled man held a knife to his own throat, threatening to harm himself. A fellow officer used a stun gun to get the man to a safe position, Bratton said. Years later, Bratton ran into the same man again while on patrol.

"He asked me to pass his thanks along because that officer saved his life," Bratton said. "Overall, it's a great tool. It has helped minimize the amount of problems we have. The feeling (of being stunned) isn't pleasant, but it gets the job done."


Source: Daily Reporter, http://bit.ly/1Fp6aPN


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