Limits on Taser use risky, police union says
Under new rules, St. Petersburg police must first make physical contact with a suspect. A union representative says the change creates confusion.
By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published September 24, 2006
ST. PETERSBURG - New rules on the use of Tasers have city police officers upset. They call the changes confusing and needlessly restrictive.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon recently issued new guidelines for using Tasers specifying that officers must use a "hands-on" attempt to arrest suspects and Taser them only if that fails.
In other words, officers must make physical contact with a suspect and can use a Taser only if the person manages to flee or keeps resisting. Officers are also allowed to use Tasers on suspects who show "aggressive resistance," which the Florida Department of Law Enforcement defines as actions that could injure an officer or others.
The police union says the modified guidelines increase the risks of violent confrontations and injuries to officers and suspects.
"It has created a lot of questions and a lot of concerns among our members," said Sgt. Phil Quandt, a Fraternal Order of Police representative.
Harmon said he changed the policy for the sake of clarity.
"One of the issues we were having was that there were some questions on when it could be used that were not clear," Harmon said. "The intent was to clarify the original policy."
Harmon offered this example: Could an officer use a Taser to subdue a suspected drug dealer who just ran away? The answer: no.
Harmon said he hadn't heard any complaints about the new guidelines.
The new policies are more restrictive than several other local agencies such as the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department, both of which give their officers more latitude to use Tasers.
The Sheriff's Office allows deputies to use Tasers on suspects who run away, and says they should be considered before the use of "hands-on" techniques. Tampa police also are allowed to use Tasers before "hands-on" efforts, and can use the weapon to get suspects who don't respond to officers' commands.
St. Petersburg union officials say the new language issued by Harmon could increase fights between officers and suspects in less charged situations. If officers are now required to make physical contact with suspects before they're allowed to use a Taser, the move that could lead to thrown punches or worse, they say.
"I think what it's done is limited the ability to use the Taser," said Mark Deasaro, president of the local Police Benevolent Association. "(Harmon) is taking away the effectiveness of the tool."
The Police Department began issuing Tasers, which fire electric charges of 50,000 volts to stun people, at the beginning of the year. In the past eight months, officers have discharged Tasers 142 times.
Before officers had Tasers, they used other weapons such as pepper spray or expandable metal batons to subdue suspects. While officers can still use those weapons, police spokesman William Proffitt said anecdotal evidence suggested their use had dropped significantly since the issuance of Tasers.
Both Harmon and union officials say Tasers have reduced injuries among officers and suspects. While the weapon has been criticized for sometimes causing deaths, it has not been subject to much criticism locally.
Harmon said he adopted a higher threshold for Taser use than some other local law enforcement agencies partly because of the recommendations of a community panel that studied the devices.
"That was the level of comfort that the community thought was appropriate and that's where my comfort (level) is," Harmon said.
At first, the department's wording seemed to give officers more freedom to use Tasers. The original general order governing their use said officers could fire a Taser if they were unable to arrest a suspect or someone put up "aggressive resistance." It didn't mention "hands-on" attempts.
In May, the department issued a memo saying they should make a "physical attempt" to arrest someone before using a Taser. On Aug. 30, the department issued another change saying that there officers should make a "hands-on" attempt to arrest a suspect before using a Taser.
The changes have left officers unsure, union officials said. Quandt said he walked through the department recently asking 10 officers about what the new guidelines meant. They all gave him different interpretations of the new guidelines.
"Nobody's really sure what it means anymore," Quandt said.
Times reporter Abbie VanSickle contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.