Law officers take Taser hits

Staff photo / Jessie StenslandIsland County Sheriff Mike Hawley grimaces as he’s jolted by electricity from the department’s new Taser.  - Jessie Stensland
Staff photo / Jessie StenslandIsland County Sheriff Mike Hawley grimaces as he’s jolted by electricity from the department’s new Taser.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley contorted and convulsed over the department’s newest gadget Monday morning.

It was the first of three training sessions for the department’s four new Advanced Tasers, the less-than-lethal defensive weapons being used by police and sheriff’s departments across the nation. Like pepper spray or bean-bag rounds, the Tasers are meant to stop an extremely violent, resistant or intoxicated person without causing injury.

They certainly seem to work. Hawley and a dozen or so deputies took turns getting zapped by a Taser during the training session, just to experience the effect. There was a lot of howling and contorting, as well as some swearing.

“It’s like I stuck my whole body into a light plug that was 220,” Hawley said immediately after getting tased. “It was wave after wave after wave of boom, boom, boom.”

Hawley and the deputies only got about two seconds of Taser volts from a pair of darts that were taped onto them. But for criminals, the experience can be a little more shocking.

The Taser “guns” shoot out a pair of barbed darts attached to insulated wire. The light-weight darts stick into a person and the Taser delivers a full five seconds of 50,000 volts or 26 watts.

Detective Ed Wallace, the department’s defensive tactics specialist, explained that the Tasers are very safe. In four years of use, only one death resulted from the use of a Taser. In that case, the subject fell the wrong way off a building.

At only 0.162 amps, the Taser cannot damage the human body, cause a heart attack or damage a pacemaker. After all, they run on AA batteries.

“There was no urination and no defecation in four times I’ve done it” Wallace said. The electricity actually cauterizes the tiny wounds where the darts stick into the body. They leave little red pucker marks.

On the other hand, the Taser could probably stop a charging bull elephant — at least momentarily. The goal of the Taser is to incapacitate a person — or animal — long enough for a deputy to gain control of the situation. That means a deputy armed with a Taser wouldn’t have to wrestle, hit or shoot an out-of-control individual. That translates into fewer injuries and deaths for both deputies and suspects.

Wallace said the Tukwila police department was the first department in the state to get the Taser. After that, Wallace said the police-involved assaults went down to about zero.

According to national Taser statistics, they are deployed most often on drunks and people in the midst of serious mental health crises. While traditional pain-compliance measures by law enforcement — holds, pepper spray, baton whacking — can be overcome by alcohol and drugs, nobody is unaffected by 50,000 volts.

The device can also be handy, Wallace said, when dealing with suicidal subjects, just as long as they don’t cause someone to fall the wrong way off a bridge.

The deputies don’t necessarily have to shoot people with a Taser to get them to calm down. Wallace said deputies can just pull the trigger and the impressive “arc display” will scare people into compliance.

“When I arc displayed to a guy in back of (deputy) Jeff’s car, he complied right away,” Wallace said.

The Tasers do have their limitations. They are laser-sited, but Wallace said it’s just about impossible to hit a moving target. The darts are connected by wires with a 21-foot range and they don’t work as well if the suspect is just a few feet away. The Tasers can be used as “touch” stun guns, but it’s also not very effective. They shouldn’t be used with alcohol-based pepper spray for fear of fire.

“Don’t tase people standing in pools of gasoline,” Wallace said. “Don’t tase people who have doused themselves in gasoline.”

The Tasers run about $400 and each “cartridge,” which can only be used once, is $21. The cartridges are loaded with non-flammable compressed nitrogen that propel the darts at 180 feet per second.

The Taser guns record the time and date of each firing, which can be downloaded into a computer, to protect law enforcement from allegations of misuse. Moreover, Hawley said the deputies will have to write out an incident report for each time they discharge a Taser.

Hawley explained that the jail and each precinct will get one of the new Tasers. He told the deputies that more units will be phased in over time, probably as each patrol car is replaced. He said the deputies can also use their uniform allowances to buy them.

So far, a Taser has only been used once by deputies in Island County. Wallace, who’s carried one for six months, tasered a suspect who was running away.

“Imagine if you got the full five seconds when you didn’t expect it. Your whole world lights up...” Wallace said. “The suspect initially thought he’d been shot (with a real gun).”

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