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Tough crowd reviews Taser policy

St. Petersburg's police chief assembles community leaders representing schools, the homeless and neighborhoods.

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published October 2, 2005


[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Police Maj. Ron Hartz, center, the test subject in a Taser demonstration Saturday in St. Petersburg, is held by a neighborhood association president, Mark Taber, left, and St. Petersburg College student Robert McAnich. A physical therapy student, McAnich described Hartz: "I felt his muscles stiffen, but . . . I felt no shock at all. But he did go extremely rigid."

ST. PETERSBURG - Sevell Brown watched the muscular man with bleached blond hair pace the stage in a quiet conference room, his fingers curled around a small black stun gun.

Brown didn't necessarily believe everything the man said, particularly a sentence repeated several times: "The Taser," said Russel Stender, president of DGG Taser, "will not kill you."

But on the whole, Brown, president of the Florida Southern Christian Leadership Conference, left a community meeting on Saturday believing that it was not a bad idea for the city's roughly 540 police officers to carry Tasers. He wanted to make sure, however, that the city had a thoughtful policy.

"We want to be assured that the technology will not be abused," Brown said.

That was police Chief Chuck Harmon's aim Saturday by inviting several dozen community leaders, a school district official, a homeless coalition advocate and several neighborhood association presidents to review his proposed Taser policy, aired publicly for the first time at the six-hour meeting.

Harmon has already decided to order about 400 Tasers and plans to train officers early next year. But he hasn't yet decided the particular circumstances under which officers may use the stun guns, which can deliver a five-second, 50,000-volt shock.

His plan says officers generally may use Tasers when someone is showing "aggressive resistance" - or actively fighting a law enforcement officer. However, officers might use Tasers if an initial attempt to take a suspect into custody failed, if a suspect was trying to harm himself, or if a person who committed a felony was running away.

Officers would not be permitted to use Tasers on anyone who is showing only "verbal or passive physical resistance," is obviously pregnant, elderly, or known to be suffering from heart disease or a serious medical condition - unless the circumstances were extraordinary.

The policy will take effect after Harmon considers public suggestions and makes possible adjustments. "I want to hear what people think before I approve anything," he said.

The deputy superintendent of Pinellas schools said she worried about Tasers being used on children. "I'm uncomfortable with them in elementary or middle schools," said Nancy Zambito. She added that at some of the middle schools, other county agencies already have Tasers for patrols.

Still, "it's a great concern," she said.

She tried to get assurance from some of the medical professionals on hand Saturday that Tasers would not hurt children. And, although doctors said children ages 2 and older likely would not be harmed unless they had some other type of medical condition, Zambito wasn't convinced.

"It's clear there's not much documentation about young people," she said.

Harmon's policy says Tasers should not be used on anyone 12 or younger. His officers cautioned that while it may seem extreme to use the stun gun on someone 14 or 15 years old, they do encounter combative teenagers who are 6 foot 2 and 200 pounds, capable of overpowering an officer. They will consider the size of a suspect before deciding whether to use the Taser, Harmon said.

Other people, including Brown, feared officers would use the painful Tasers for convenience, rather than need. He mentioned some well-publicized, questionable incidents: Miami-Dade police using a Taser on a 6-year-old boy at school after he cut himself with glass and threatened to harm himself and using a Taser on a 12-year-old girl running from officers because she was allegedly drunk and skipping school.

The St. Petersburg Police Department is the last of the large Florida law enforcement agencies to buy Tasers, said Stender, president of Jacksonville-based DGG Taser & Tactical Supply, the state distributor for Taser International. He estimates two-thirds of the state's law enforcement agencies have acquired them.

Harmon said he held out because he didn't know the answer to an important question: Why were people dying?

Amnesty International has documented at least 129 U.S. and Canadian deaths of people stunned by Tasers. Most deaths were later attributed to drugs, pre-existing heart problems or "excited delirium," a psychotic and typically drug-induced state in which the heart is susceptible to cardiac arrest.

Harmon said he assembled a stack of research about a foot tall before deciding Tasers would be an asset - possibly reducing officer and suspect injuries and providing officers an alternative to deadly force when dealing with the mentally ill.

Jon Thogmartin, Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner, told the crowd that it was a medical fact that the Taser alone would not kill.

But, he said, Tasers can contribute to a death in numerous ways: Someone falls after being hit and smashes his head, the equipment malfunctions, or an officer abuses the Taser and delivers a prolonged shock. Also, the Taser could exacerbate an existing medical condition.

But any use of force carries risk, he said. If he had to choose, Thogmartin said, he would rather be hit by a Taser than with an officer's baton. The Taser hurts, but the pain goes away relatively quickly.

Laurie Romig, medical director of Pinellas Emergency Medical Services, told Harmon that she did not believe paramedics should be called every time a Taser is used, but only in more serious cases, particularly when someone is hit in a sensitive spot such as the eye or the throat. It doesn't happen a lot, but it happens, both Taser distributors and authorities say.

The city will pay about $1,000 for each Taser out of the department's forfeiture and seizure fund. The guns last three to five years.

Harmon said he likely will require all officers to take a hit from the gun so they will respect its power. During training, he plans to be first in line.

--Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455. Send e-mail to jthompson@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 2, 2005, 04:42:07]


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