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Published in Print: March 2, 2005, as Officers’ Stun Guns Raising Serious Concerns

Officers’ Stun Guns Raising Serious Concerns

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The use of stun guns on unruly students has alarmed school officials and parents, who in some cases had no prior knowledge that police departments had equipped their school-based officers with the shock-delivering devices.

Increasingly popular with law-enforcement agencies nationwide, stun guns—best known under the Taser brand name—are stirring heated debate over whether their use in schools and on minors is appropriate. One Florida lawmaker has proposed to ban the use of stun guns in schools in his state.

St. Paul, Minn., police officer Julie Maidment wears her Taser stun gun while patrolling the city’s Highland Park Senior High School last month. Ms. Maidment began carrying the Taser in January.
St. Paul, Minn., police officer Julie Maidment wears her Taser stun gun while patrolling the city’s Highland Park Senior High School last month. Ms. Maidment began carrying the Taser in January.
—Janet Hostetter/AP

“At this point, there are many unanswered questions about the claims for Tasers’ safety—we do know the manufacturers’ claims are overstated,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the Denver chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

It is difficult to track the number of school police officers who carry the battery-operated, hand-held devices. But Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International Inc., estimates that school police officers from about 1,700 law-enforcement agencies around the country had been issued Tasers from his company as of last August.

Curtis Lavarello, the executive director of the Osprey, Fla.-based National Association of School Resource Officers, said he had to use a stun gun about three or four times on students when he worked as a school police officer. He believes stun guns, which can emit up to a 50,000-volt electrical shock aimed at immobilizing a person for a few seconds, are useful tools for school police officers.

Denver, Miami Complaints

Recently, though, the use of stun guns has come under increasing scrutiny because of the potentially fatal effects that critics suggest the devices can have on people, especially children and teenagers.

Amnesty International, based in New York City, has cited at least 93 cases since June 2001 in which people in the United States and Canada died after being shocked with a stun gun. None of those people were under the age of 18.

Taser International maintains that its stun gun, which shoots darts of electricity, is a safe alternative to lethal force. Tasers can shoot a person from a distance of up to 25 feet and cause the target to lose neuromuscular control for about five seconds.

Many police officials add that stun guns are just another nonlethal method of subduing aggressive people and reducing officer injuries.

Yet even though stun guns are promoted as an alternative to the use of deadly force, Mr. Silverstein of the ACLU believes they are used far more in circumstances in which officers wouldn’t dream of using a firearm. He called on Denver police officials a year ago to tighten their general policy on the use of stun guns in response to complaints about local police using them too often.

In October, parents and school officials in the 360,000-student Miami-Dade County school district in Florida were alarmed to hear that a county police officer had used a Taser to stun a 6-year-old boy at Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary School. The student apparently was wielding a shard of glass after breaking a picture frame and was threatening to kill himself, according to police.

Many school-based police officers are now carrying stun guns, such as Tasers. But parents have safety concerns about the weapons.
Many school-based police officers are now carrying stun guns, such as Tasers. But parents have safety concerns about the weapons.
—Photo courtesy of Taser International

District Superintendent Rudolph F. Crew expressed serious concerns about the incident in a strongly worded letter to Bobby Parker, the director of Miami-Dade Police Department.

“The Pharr student was agitated and injured,” Mr. Crew wrote in the Nov. 16 letter. “A dispassionate assessment of the circumstances surrounding this incident only yields serious questions about the reasonableness of the force used and the alternatives to that force that appear to have been overlooked.”

In response, Mr. Parker said in a Dec. 14 letter to the superintendent that, “under these circumstances, there was no reasonable alternative to the use of the Taser.”

Useful Tool?

In Madison, Wis., a police officer used a stun gun to subdue a 14-year-old boy in Memorial High School’s parking lot when the student was resisting arrest Jan. 21.

In the wake of the incident, a community forum is scheduled for March 2. The school board, school security staff and the police chief are scheduled to meet April 2 to further discuss the issue. Police have been carrying stun guns for a few years, but the use of them did not become an issue until after the Jan. 21 incident.

“I would like to see a fairly broad discussion of this,” said Ruth Robarts, a Madison school board member.

“People have to recognize there are gives and takes [regarding the use of stun guns],” said Ted Balistreri, the security coordinator for the Madison schools.

School officials in Duval County, Fla., are also trying to sort through the benefits and drawbacks of equipping school-based police officers with stun guns. They were surprised to hear about the Jacksonville sheriff’s decision to equip officers with Tasers when the story broke in The Florida Times-Union newspaper. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office covers Duval County, including the county’s 128,000-student school district.

The Duval County Council held a public meeting Feb. 23 to discuss the use of stun guns with school officials, community members, and Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford.

The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office signed a $1.8 million contract with Taser International to equip its 1,500 officers with 1,800 Tasers over the next two years. The decision to equip officers, including those patrolling the schools, was made primarily by the sheriff’s office.

School officials had little knowledge about why officers based at schools would carry stun guns next fall and how they would be used.

“The superintendent didn’t know what the policy was, and a lot of parents didn’t know it was going to be in the schools,” said Florida state Sen. Anthony C. Hill Sr., a Democrat.

The senator is polishing the details of a bill he proposed in December that would prohibit police officers from using stun guns on school property or at school-sponsored events.

The Jacksonville sheriff has said publicly that the decision to deploy stun guns is up to the police department, not the schools, according to Brenda English, a spokeswoman for the Duval County schools.

But that doesn’t sit well with many parents.

“They [the police department] didn’t consult the school board” when the sheriff decided to outfit school officers with the devices starting this summer, said Reta Russell-Houghton, the president of the Duval County Council PTA/PTSA, which consists of 158 parent-teacher associations in the county. “The biggest problem was just that [the sheriff] sees it as a valuable tool for the police officer, but he never thought that people would be really upset.”

Still, she said, parents appear to be split on the issue.

“There’s parents that are really concerned about it and don’t want it in schools, and there are parents that say this is a really useful tool,” Ms. Russell-Houghton said.

Officer’s Judgment

The Miami-Dade County incident in which the 6-year-old boy was stunned with a Taser has caught the attention of police across the country.

“If someone’s cutting on themselves, what do you do?” said Paul Schnell, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department in Minnesota. “I don’t condone using a Taser on a 6-year-old—obviously, I would expect our officers to use every single option available. But if someone was going to take their own life, of course, those become the difficult questions.”

St. Paul’s school police officers added Tasers to their equipment belts on Jan. 31. The department’s decision to equip all of its officers with the weapon was a “natural progression,” Mr. Schnell said.

Vol. 24, Issue 25, Page 6

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