By MEGAN JAMES
BRANDON — The Brandon Police Department is ready to integrate a new weapon into the arsenal its force of seven officers uses to keep the peace in town — the Taser X26 stun gun.
The non-deadly stun gun is promoted by its manufacturer, Taser International, as a safer alternative to firearms that can reduce police-related firearm fatalities. But some civil liberties organizations doubt the Taser’s claim that their device, which shocks a police query with 50,000 volts, is less than lethal and have begun tallying up deaths they say are linked to police mishandling of the weapon.
In Brandon, where the select board OK’d the purchase of two Tasers at a cost of under $1,000 apiece, police say the new tool is needed.
“The number-one priority for us is that it reduces the risk of officer and suspect injury,” said Lt. Christopher Brickell, who, along with fellow Brandon police officer Charles Whitehead, attended a two-day instructor training course in Massachusetts this month and is now certified to use, and to train other officers in the use of, the Taser.
“Tasers are never a replacement for a firearm,” Brickell said, explaining that the weapon should be used on combative people, suspects under the influence of drugs or people involved in a domestic conflict. “It’s similar to carrying OC, or pepper spray, or an expandable baton.”
Inventor Jack Cover named the electroshock gun he invented in 1969 after the science-fiction character Tom Swift; Taser is an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” The pistol-shaped weapon uses compressed nitrogen gas to fire two darts from as far away as 20 feet into the top two inches of a person’s clothing or skin. A 50,000-volt electric charge is then conducted down wires connecting the darts with the Taser, causing skeletal muscle spasms for five seconds, disrupting the nervous system and temporarily immobilizing the person.
A shot from a Taser “totally incapacitates you,” said Brickell, who was required to experience a Taser shock as part of his training. “I don’t really have the words to describe it,” he said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Your entire body goes into a muscle spasm, you fall into a heap on the floor and you wish it wouldn’t last as long as it does.”
But unlike pepper spray, a weapon categorized at the same level of force, the Taser has no lingering after-effects, according to Brickell. While a person hit with pepper spray is often required to go through a decontamination process at the hospital, a person shot with a Taser will recover within five seconds after the darts have been removed, he said.
Also, in a struggle involving pepper spray, it is almost inevitable that officers will spray themselves in addition to spraying the person they wish to subdue. With a Taser, officers can re-activate the weapon and shoot the person again if necessary. But usually, Brickell said, the five-second shock time should be enough for an officer to take control of the situation.
The two Brandon officers will carry Tasers on their belts with the rest of their tools of force. It will be their responsibility to decide when to use the stun gun and when to reach for a firearm.
According to Brandon Police Chief Lonnie Hatman, officers are trained to judge a situation by the suspect’s ability to inflict harm. If the suspect has a weapon like a gun or knife, it is safer not to pick up the Taser, he said. In such a situation, officers are “justified to use deadly force.”
But if more than one officer is present, or the suspect poses no lethal threat, a stun gun might be a viable option.
Brandon is not the first police department in the area to send its officers to Taser training. According to Brickell, the Rutland City Police recently put in an order for 17 of the guns.
The Vermont State Police implemented Tasers in its Tactical Services Unit about two years ago, but has no plans at this time to expand their usage. “I think it’s a great option for any law enforcement officer to have it when the circumstances are right. It’s just another option to de-escalate a situation in a safer way,” said VSP public information officer Sgt. John Flannigan.
But police departments in Addison County seem less keen on the idea.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said he has no plans to deploy Tasers because they are “very expensive both to purchase and maintain.” While he doesn’t doubt their merits, the recurring expense of training with the guns, because of the level of proficiency they require, would mean he would “have to look into how frequently we would use them.”
LIMITS ON USE
After a lengthy discussion with Chief Hatman a few weeks ago, the Brandon selectboard approved the police department’s Taser purchase. The deciding factor, according to selectboard member Kellie Patten, was that the tool would be used as an alternative to deadly force.
“But it has its limitations just like the OC spray,” she said. “The conditions have to be right to use it.