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Federal bureaus reject stun guns

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

The Department of Homeland Security's two largest law enforcement divisions have rejected the use of stun guns for about 20,000 agents and officers, largely because of questions about the safety of the devices that emit electrical charges to temporarily incapacitate suspects.

The bans were adopted by the bureaus of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in internal directives that were issued during the past two years.

ICE rejected the devices in December 2003, spokesman Russ Knocke said. That was about a month after an officer with the Federal Protective Service, a part of ICE, allegedly was injured during a stun gun training session.

CBP issued its own ban several months later, spokesman Barry Morrissey said.

"There are enough question marks about the safety of this device," Morrissey said, citing a recent review by the agency. "The safety of our officers and the public is always a concern. It was determined that the device just didn't fit."

The bureaus' acknowledgements of the bans come at a time when stun guns, which are used by more than 7,000 law enforcement agencies across the USA, are under increasing scrutiny.

Since 1999, more than 80 people have died after being shocked with stun guns, according to reviews by The Arizona Republic and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The Republic has reported that autopsies have linked 11 deaths to stun guns, which also are known as Tasers.

In recent weeks, several civil rights groups - including the SCLC, an interfaith group in Atlanta - have called for a moratorium on the use of stun guns.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement groups have called for more extensive research into whether stun guns are safe.

Arizona-based Taser International, by far the largest manufacturer of the devices, has vigorously defended the safety of the more than 130,000 Tasers it has sold to police agencies.

Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle declined to comment on the Homeland Security bureaus' decision not to use the devices.

"While we understand the concerns of the public concerning the topic of in-custody deaths following Taser usage, there are medical experts who dispute the few cases, out of tens of thousands of lifesaving uses, where a Taser device has been cited as a contributing factor to an in-custody death," Tuttle said recently in a statement. "It is the safer alternative (to firearms) ... to subdue violent individuals who could harm law enforcement officers, innocent citizens or themselves."

Officer's lawsuit against Taser

ICE spokesman Knocke said his agency, which also includes the federal air marshals program, banned stun guns Dec. 10, 2003, after a review by ICE's Firearms and Tactical Training Unit.

Less than four weeks earlier, on Nov. 14, officer Salvatore Dimiceli allegedly suffered injuries to both arms during a stun gun training session held in Miami by Taser International, said Tod Aronovitz, Dimiceli's attorney.

Dimiceli has sued Taser. He alleges that Taser did not provide adequate warnings about the training, and he is seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

ICE would not comment on the incident or the lawsuit. Efforts to reach Taser regarding Dimiceli's allegations were unsuccessful.

Knocke declined to comment on ICE's safety review that followed the incident, but he said, "The decision (to ban stun guns) was made out of an abundance of caution related to safety."

The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department (news - web sites), has solicited proposals for additional studies of stun guns. Since September, the Justice Department has awarded $530,000 in grants for such research; the work is likely to be completed this summer.

The Police Foundation, a law enforcement think tank based in Washington, has submitted one of the proposals. It said the safety reviews should be done quickly because stun guns are used by so many law enforcement officers.

"Clearly, there is not enough information out there on the medical issues and how these devices are being deployed," said Karen Amendola, the foundation's chief operating officer for research and evaluation. "There needs to be an objective third-party look at this issue."

Ban not aimed at manufacturer

Much of the recent criticism of stun guns has focused on Taser International. But Morrissey said the safety review and subsequent ban of stun guns by CBP officials dealt with the "overall application of the technology" and was not aimed at a specific manufacturer.

Morrissey added, however, that the "burden of proof is on the manufacturer" when it comes to the safety of stun guns. "Down the road, we may look at (the issue) again," he said.

If stun guns had been approved for his agency, Morrissey said, the weapons could have been issued to thousands of Border Patrol agents who often are involved in hand-to-hand altercations with suspects.

Such agents carry pepper spray and batons as non-lethal weapons that can be used instead of their handguns.

CBP recently drafted a policy for using non-lethal weapons that will make batons and pepper spray more accessible to Customs officers, Morrissey said.
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