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Police like option of less lethal weapons

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Worcester police Sgt. Kerry F. Hazelhurst shows the department's latest less lethal weapon, a pepper ball gun. The pepper ball ammunition is loaded in the top-mounted receptacle and power is supplied by the CO{-2} cartridge, lower left below Sgt. Hazelhurst's arm. (T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR)

Worcester police were called to a Main Street home Aug. 26 to investigate a report that a man was threatening to kill himself. Inside, they found him holding what appeared to be a handgun just below his neck.

The man was told to drop the gun. He didn't, and he tried to escape farther into his apartment.

Within moments, Officer Sean T. Riley discharged his Taser X26. The two metal probes released an electric pulse and the man was stopped. What turned out to be a pellet gun fell to the ground. The man was taken to a city hospital for observation.

"If they didn't do that - and he pointed the gun at them - you can't tell what might have happened," Capt. Paul B. Saucier said. "The Taser is just another tool in our arsenal and is another option for officers to use, other than deadly force."

Worcester is one of two police departments in Central Massachusetts - Gardner is the other - that has used Tasers. Worcester police own two Tasers and have used them since April 2007 in 13 instances, according to Capt. Saucier. Five instances involved people with mental health issues who were threatening to harm themselves or others and had a weapon.

"There have been a handful of incidents where we have been able to stop people from harming themselves and save their lives," Capt. Saucier said.

One man even later thanked police, telling them, "You saved my life," police said.

Tasers are used by more than 7,000 of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States; more than 140,000 Tasers are in use by police officers, and Tasers have been involved in more than 70,000 actual field uses during police encounters, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Taser use has critics, however, including claims by Amnesty International USA and other groups of deaths related to Taser shocks by police.

To evaluate the safety of conducted-energy devices such as Tasers, several studies have been initiated by the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. An interim report from one NIJ study found "no conclusive medical evidence within current medical research that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of CED exposure," although certain groups may be at higher risk.

A nationwide study by Wake Forest University School of Medicine, released last year, found Taser use by law enforcement to be safe.

"We were fully aware of all the issues involved in Tasers and the deployment of Tasers," said Worcester police Chief Gary J. Gemme. "That is why we did the research and chose this particular device."

Chief Gemme said his department has a good policy in place regarding deployment of Tasers and other less lethal weapons. The use of force policy details the steps that occur before force can be used by an officer. In some cases where the Taser was employed, deadly force could have been used, he noted.

"In the cases we've had to deploy the Taser, the results have been that we have minimized the risk to the individuals involved and the risk to the officers," the chief said. Less lethal weapons usually engender controversy, he said.

Worcester's two Tasers - each costs about $1,000 - are available to trained officers on patrol who are members of the police SWAT team.

"Everyone on the team is certified and has been shocked with the Taser," said Capt. Saucier, SWAT commander.

When the Taser trigger is pulled, two probes shoot out. The probes can go through clothing and into the skin and deliver an electric shock, incapacitating the person. The Taser delivers 0.004 amps of current at 50,000 volts. The shock lasts a few seconds. When the trigger is pulled, the use is recorded electronically and the information reviewed by the captain and a deputy chief and a report sent to the chief's office.

Departments using Tasers get approval from the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and send quarterly reports to that agency on the use of Tasers. In 2006-2007, 20 of 36 police departments authorized to use Tasers did so, according to data compiled by the state. Tasers were fired 242 times in 137 instances.

Worcester police Detective Daniel F. Sullivan, a SWAT member, said the Taser is best used from 7 to 15 feet away and produces a five-second shock. People can recover once the shock ends. The Taser can be shot from up to 21 feet away, a distance police know well, because a suspect armed with a knife within 21 feet can assault an officer before the officer is able to unholster a handgun.

"From our perspective, the times when we use Tasers it is for the protection and safety of the officers, the individual holding the weapon and any citizens nearby," Chief Gemme said.

The Taser is one of several tools Worcester police use as less lethal means of controlling a person or a situation.

When a crowd at a carnival at Franklin and Foster streets got out of control last spring, officers used a pepper ball gun to disperse people.

Detective Sullivan said the pepper ball gun resembles a paintball gun and is very accurate up to 30 feet. Besides pepper balls, the gun can fire marker rounds to identify a person with a paint-like substance that is difficult to wash off.

Pepper spray must be used 4 to 6 feet away to be effective. Batons were and still are used, but to use a baton an officer has to be very close to a person.

Only trained members of SWAT are authorized to use less lethal weapons.

When they are used, a report is filed and the use reviewed. Less lethal weapons are also a different color from department handguns. They are tested and a review completed before they are added to the department's arsenal.

"There weren't many options many years ago," Chief Gemme said. "Now, authorized officers can assess the situation and use the tool most appropriate. In all applications, the appropriate tool is used and it minimizes harm to individuals and the officers."
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