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Situation, not age, guides local Taser use

In the past two weeks, Miami-Dade officers have stunned a 6- and a 12-year-old.

By MARCUS FRANKLIN
Published November 16, 2004

graphic
Click to view the growing use of tasers graphic.

Police in Miami-Dade County use a 50,000-volt stun gun to subdue an emotionally disturbed 6-year-old who was cutting himself with glass in the principal's office.

Two weeks later, a Miami-Dade officer fires a Taser on a 12-year-old suspected truant as she runs toward traffic.

Those recent incidents outraged parents and community leaders and prompted the department to review its policy on the stun weapons.

In the Tampa Bay area, where the use of Tasers has been growing, policies vary on when and whether to use them against children or other special groups, such as the elderly. But no one says they expect any changes because of the controversy in Miami-Dade.

The written policy at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which has 426 Tasers, encourages deputies to use "other force options" besides Tasers when confronting people who are unarmed and of "advanced age" or "very young." But the policy allows deputies to use Tasers to "immediately cease or prevent physical combat, violent acts against a member, other persons or property, or self-inflicted injury."

The Tampa Police Department has no age restrictions on who can be fired upon by the pistol-like weapons, from which two barbs deliver an electrical charge that attacks the central nervous system to immobilize the target temporarily.

Each circumstance is different, said Cpl. Thomas Downes, the department's chief training officer. About 500 TPD employees, or half the department, are equipped with Tasers, Downes said.

"We have officers in all shapes and sizes and capabilities," Downes said, "and problems come in all shapes and sizes and capabilities. There are some enormous 14-year-olds out there that are real problems if they decide to fight."

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, where about 1,000 of 1,200 sworn officers carry Tasers, approaches the use of Tasers similarly, said spokesman Lt. Rod Reder.

"It's all circumstance," Reder said. "There are some 12-year-olds who are probably 160, 170 pounds and some adult females weighing 90 pounds."

Clearwater police policy, like Miami-Dade's, prohibits using Tasers only on pregnant women. But Clearwater's policy says officers may use Tasers to subdue people who pose violent threats to the safety of officers, others or themselves. The policies don't address age.

Other police agencies eschew department-wide use of the battery-powered weapons. The St. Petersburg Police Department has only two Tasers, both in the SWAT unit. Officers haven't used them on suspects, the chief said.

"I'm not against them," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. "But I want to make sure when we're ready to (use them), that we know what all the issues are and develop good sound policies on when and how it's used."

As for the Miami incidents, Harmon said, "I don't think it's good policy to shoot a 6-year-old with a Taser.

"I'm not convinced any police officer in my department, or anywhere else, couldn't handle a 6-year-old. I'm not saying the (Miami-Dade) officer was right or wrong, but I would have great concern using this particular weapon on a 6-year-old."

The probes hit the boy in the midsection of his torso and the bottom of his shirt. They hit the 12-year-old's neck and lower back. Miami-Dade police director Bobby Parker defended the officer's decision to shock the boy but said he could not defend the officer in the second incident, the Associated Press reported.

Terry Coble, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Miami officers shouldn't have used the stun guns. All police policies should exclude children, the elderly and pregnant women from being approved targets, Coble said.

"Tasers should only be used as an alternative to lethal force, and these circumstances aren't circumstances under which lethal force should be used," she said.

The case involving the 6-year-old boy underscores lack of training among Miami-Dade police in dealing with the mentally and emotionally disturbed, she said. "It's a challenge to our common sense to accept that there are no less intrusive means of dealing with a 6-year-old child in this situation," she said.

Ed Nowicki, founder of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, disagreed. He said the stun guns helped lower police shootings nationally, as well as injuries of officers and suspects.

"What should determine use of a Taser is not necessarily the age of somebody. It's the danger level," said the 57-year-old former police chief of Silver Lake, Wis.

Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, the Arizona company that makes the stun guns, defended the weapons Monday.

"While we provide warnings of secondary injuries that may occur due to falling or muscle contractions, we do not provide warnings based on age or other population groups since the Taser device has been shown to be medically safe when used on children based on independent medical tests and field use," Tuttle said.

"It is properly the responsibility of each local agency to set its own policy based upon the totality of the circumstances, for any Taser device deployment."

Times staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report. Marcus Franklin can be reached at mfranklin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8488.

[Last modified November 16, 2004, 00:39:15]


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