Taser use by cops grows on Long Island

A firearms instructor with the Suffolk County Police describes what happens when they use a Taser gun on a subject. Videojournalist: Chuck Fadely (Oct. 15, 2013)

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Police on Long Island are increasingly firing Tasers at suspects as law enforcement agencies issue more of the electroshock weapons to officers.

The Suffolk County Police Department currently owns 1,164 Tasers -- enough to equip nearly half its force. And every new recruit gets one, said Chief of Patrol John Meehan.

Nassau police, with a dozen of the weapons now, plan to purchase 200 more. The new Tasers will be assigned next year to patrol supervisors, including about 170 sergeants and lieutenants, said Insp. Kenneth Lack, a department spokesman.

Lack said a rise in injuries to both arresting officers and suspects over the past two years prompted the investment.

 

A 'less-than-lethal option'

"This expansion . . . gives an intermediate, less-than-lethal option when trying to control violent suspects," he said.

Suffolk's use of Tasers has jumped fivefold over the past seven years, records show.

In 2005, Tasers were relatively new to the force and officers fired them 31 times. The devices were used 189 times in 2011 and 156 times last year, according to police statistics.

At least seven people -- including a Middle Island man in July -- have died in Suffolk over the past nine years after being shocked with Tasers fired by police, according to news reports.

Law enforcement agencies have embraced Tasers as a safe alternative to lethal force, protecting both the suspect and officer from harm, but as the number of people getting shocked rises, so have concerns about serious injury or death.

Amnesty International USA, which has tracked police use of electroshock weapons since 2001, said at least 552 people have died nationwide after being zapped. The human rights group has called for a suspension of law enforcement use of Tasers until more is learned about safety risks.

"We are still calling for a nationwide moratorium of the use of Tasers because not enough is known about what causes death," said spokeswoman Suzanne Trimel. "Police departments keep using them and people keep dying, and we don't know why."

The concerns haven't slowed police departments across Long Island from adding Tasers -- manufactured, marketed and sold by Arizona-based Taser International -- to their arsenals.

Earlier this year, East Hampton Town police added eight Tasers -- quadrupling the supply available to all officers. Hempstead Village police own six of the devices, restricting use to the department's 17 sergeants and lieutenants.

 

Police: 'effective' weapon

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Tasers deliver 50,000 volts of electricity through two insulated 21-foot-long wires attached to fishhook-like darts. When the darts penetrate the skin, the resulting shock disrupts the individual's ability to control his or her muscles, causing temporary paralysis and pain.

If the cartridge is removed, Tasers can also be applied directly to the skin as a powerful stun gun.

Ken Augsbach, a Suffolk police firearm instructor, said electroshock weapons are an effective option in volatile situations if properly used.

Officers are trained to use the minimum amount of force possible to restrain a person and to gradually increase the force until they gain control of the situation, he said.

"I am telling you that safety-wise, more people are less likely to have substantial injuries with a Taser than other force options," he said.

While the correlation hasn't been documented, authorities, including those in Suffolk County, said they believe greater use of Tasers should reduce police shootings of unarmed individuals. They say Tasers can help officers control volatile situations -- before deadly force becomes necessary.

 

Greater oversight urged

The increase in Taser use by police nationwide worries the American Civil Liberties Union, which has called for more oversight.

There is no independent agency that reviews Taser use by Suffolk and Nassau police. Instead, each case is examined internally, officials said.

Amnesty International says there is ample reason for greater scrutiny, since its research shows that 90 percent of the people who died after being shocked by police were not armed.

 

Taser deaths on the rise

In 2001, three deaths in the United States were attributed to police use of the weapons, according to the group. In 2008, the most recent year available, 47 Taser deaths were reported.

Of the seven people who have died in Suffolk after being shocked by police, five involved encounters with county police, and one each with Southampton Town and Southampton Village police.

In July, Dainell Simmons, 29, died after he was shot with a Taser and doused with pepper spray at the Middle Island group home where he lived.

Police said Simmons was violent and fought with three officers, kicking and biting them. Minutes into the struggle, two officers fired their Tasers.

Earlier this month, two Suffolk officers fired on Eric Bohlsen, 40, after they thought the mentally ill man had a knife when he lunged at them. One officer used a Taser; the other his gun.

Bohlsen, who was seriously injured, was unarmed, officials later confirmed.

Suffolk police have said that both cases are being investigated. No findings have been released.

The department has refused Newsday's request for more details about Taser-related cases in recent years, including the names, ages and hometowns of the suspects.

CORRECTION: John Meehan's title was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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