Nassau County is beginning to arm its police patrol supervisors and some trainee officers with Tasers -- a major change for an organization that was slow to adopt the controversial technology widely used at most police departments across the country.
Five hundred Tasers, paid for with $568,000 in asset forfeiture funds, will be distributed to all sergeants and lieutenants who oversee patrol officers, the Bureau of Special Operations and the Emergency Service Unit.
The current police academy class of about 132 trainee officers due out this fall will be the first to graduate with Tasers -- a practice that will continue with each succeeding class, police officials said.
Eventually, every officer will be issued one, officials said.
Acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said department officials worked with Taser International, the company that makes the electrical shock stun gun, to add an automatic shut-off after five seconds, a feature Krumpter said sets Nassau apart from other police agencies and greatly decreases the chance of injury to both police personnel and the public.
While Nassau's Emergency Service Unit, or ESU, has had about 10 Tasers since 2007, by the end of next year the department anticipates about 850 to 900 of its 2,200-person force will have them.
"It's like anything -- there was a lot of debate," Krumpter said. "Now, we believe the time is right. There's a body of work that supports them."
The Nassau force is acquiring the Tasers at a time when some advocates say they still have questions about the weapons' safety and training guidelines.
Justin Mazzola, a New York City-based researcher at Amnesty International USA, said the group has tracked police use of electroshock weapons since 2001, and at least 552 people nationwide have died after being struck. His group has called for a moratorium on the use of stun guns until the federal government develops national guidelines on their use, he said.
He said the five-second automatic shut-off in the X26P Taser model that Nassau ordered "provides a safeguard from extended uses. So in that regard, it would be an upgrade, but it still doesn't prevent the potential for death."
In Nassau in 2007 -- the year they were introduced to ESU -- the Tasers were discharged a record nine times, according to department statistics. The annual discharge number has not exceeded eight since 2010. Last year, it was four. This year so far, a Taser has been used once, police said. No deaths have resulted.
In Suffolk, where about half the police force -- 1,287 -- is equipped with Tasers, at least seven people have died after being shocked with police Tasers in the past decade.
In 2005, officers fired them 31 times. The devices were used 189 times in 2011 and 156 times in 2012, 127 times last year and 60 times so far this year, according to police statistics.
Tasers, which deliver 50,000 volts of electricity through a pair of 25-foot-long wires attached to fishhook-like darts, cause temporary paralysis and pain. They can also be applied directly to the skin as a powerful stun gun.
While Tasers have become ubiquitous tools for law enforcement agencies nationwide -- a Taser spokesman says about 17,800 of the 18,000 police agencies in the United States use Tasers -- debate over the weapon's safety rages on. A 2012 study by Circulation, an American Heart Association journal, found Tasers can "provoke cardiac arrest," according to news reports.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Scottsdale, Arizona-based Taser, disputed the study's findings and cited a Wake Forest University study that found 99.7 percent of people subdued by the weapon had no injuries or very mild ones. He conceded there have been "some deaths" attributed to Tasers, but he said they resulted because the weapons were used incorrectly.
"It's safer than using K-9s, it's safer than beating someone with a cave man tool, also known as a baton," Tuttle said. "How pleasant is getting sprayed with pepper spray?"
Nassau's newly introduced Use of Force Policy -- set to be instituted July 1 -- says Tasers "generally should not be used to control" someone who is "at risk of falling from a dangerous height; handcuffed; exhibiting passive resistance; has a known heart condition; known to be under 16 or over 65; known to be pregnant; operating or riding on any moving device or vehicle." The policy also advises against Taser use when combustible or flammable liquids are present.
Deputy Insp. Ronald Walsh, commanding officer of the Nassau police academy, said each officer will undergo eight hours of training before receiving a Taser. Walsh said the device allows officers to gain control of people who are being combative and "use less force."
Officers will be required to shout, "Taser" three times in succession before firing the weapon, which Walsh said could be a deterrent. Every time an officer fires a Taser, a report will be generated detailing what happened, which Walsh said will ensure standards are adhered to.
He said the Taser is "another option that we have to add to our tools to be effective. Most people, when they hear Taser, they say, 'No! Don't!' They instantly become compliant."
Other safety precautions include a "cross-draw" requirement, meaning officers must wear the Taser on the opposite side of their belt from their firearm, as to not confuse the two. There have been several documented cases of police officers shooting people with their firearm, when they meant to use a Taser. Also, Nassau's Taser is bright yellow.
Nassau Police Sgt. Richard Keddy, a supervisor in charge of academics at the department's police academy, is one about 25 certified Taser trainers in the department. He said he was struck by a Taser as part of his 2011 certification process. He described the feeling as, "like a pulsating, heavy bang that goes through your muscle group. You feel it through your arms and legs."