TASER TAKING PLACE OF COP'S NIGHTSTICK

BRENDAN LYONS Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Monday, April 19, 2004

Colonie Tasers, the newest weapon for cops, are sliding steadily into the arsenals of an increasing number of police departments even as questions surface about whether they are dangerous or humane.


But police officials and Taser International, the Arizona-based company that makes the shock pistols, tout the 50,000-volt guns as the safest way to subdue a bad guy while minimizing injuries to both officers and suspects. Lawmakers in New York state's Assembly and Senate, meanwhile, are considering legislation that would help cover costs so more police agencies could obtain the nonlethal guns.


At some metropolitan police departments where Taser use has been closely monitored -- including Seattle and Orange County, Fla. -- police shootings have fallen dramatically. Other departments have seen an 80 percent drop in workers' compensation claims from officers injured during struggles with suspects. Injuries to people being arrested also declined as much as 70 percent, according to studies cited in a bill proposed in the state Assembly.


But departments' policies on the use of Tasers vary and the results aren't always seamless, especially in cases where officers fire the weapons at people who are high on drugs, or, zap the same person repeatedly.


That was the case last month when 24-year-old Timothy Reichel of Colonie ran from a police officer in the parking lot of Northway Mall. Reichel had a warrant for his arrest for failing to pay a fine but made it only a short distance before Officer Stephen Donovan fired a Taser into his back -- momentarily crippling him.


According to witnesses, Reichel was writhing on the ground and apparently unable to obey officers' commands to roll onto his stomach. Donovan and arriving backup officers continued to fire their Taser pistols at him, with police records indicating Reichel was hit at least five times. His family and witnesses say he hit about eight times.


``As soon as the officer got out of the car and we got out of the car, he reached for his Taser gun,'' said Reichel's girlfriend, 20-year-old Felicia Ostrander. ``Tim started running and the officer shot him with the Taser gun. I was running toward them and Tim was on the ground and I screamed `What are you doing?' because as he shot him he punched him in the face and kicked him in the back when he was already on the ground.''


Ostrander said she continued screaming as other officers fired their Tasers.


Police insist Reichel was not seriously injured and that officers acted appropriately. They allege he assaulted Donovan and resisted arrest. But the case highlights questions about the policies governing the use of the guns and whether police might use them inappropriately, unsafely, or, in ways meant to inflict nonlethal pain on someone who didn't follow orders.


Colonie Police Chief Steven Heider, whose department last year became the first in the area to use Tasers, said there are legitimate reasons why officers may have to fire a Taser more than once. He said multiple shocks are not unsafe and that thick clothing can prevent good contact of the electrified darts against someone's skin. Also, drugs, alcohol or a tolerance to pain can fuel a person's ability to overcome the shock and they will continue fighting.


In addition, the guns have internal computers that record each time they are fired so that police can document their use closely.


``Unlike a nightstick or pepper spray, it does not leave that lasting injury,'' Heider said. ``It's cut our workers' compensation claims in half. You can't have a wrestling match on the blacktop without someone getting hurt.''


The department, which makes about 3,000 arrests a year, began using Tasers last May and town officers have fired them into people about 25 times, records show. The 26-watt jolt from the dart-like probes strike a person at close range. The effect stuns the nervous system and is designed to cause temporary muscle paralysis while officers handcuff someone.


But Reichel's arrest unsettled several onlookers.


``He was immobilized because of the Tasing, but asked to reply with physical requests such as turn over, but the way they were Tasing him directly in his stomach wasn't allowing him to comply with their requests,'' said an Albany man, who asked not to be identified. ``It was really rough. I would say they used excessive force.''


There were seven other incidents over the past year when Colonie police used Taser guns more than once on the same person. One of those incidents took place during the arrest of Norberto Charlotten, a retired state trooper who was shot with a Taser at least four times by officers during a heated argument outside a Central Avenue bar in November. The argument unfolded when Charlotten was stopped by bouncers as he tried to bring a camcorder into a bar where they are prohibited.


``I don't believe you have to be Tasered more than once,'' said Jim Long, Charlotten's attorney. ``If the Taser incapacitates them and they're supposed to be handcuffed, why would he have to be repeatedly Tased? It's like shooting fish in a barrel.''


There were six incidents in which Tasers were ineffective for Colonie police and officers still had to use pepper spray or physical force to restrain suspects. But in 11 of the 25 incidents, people being arrested were hit only once with Tasers and then handcuffed without a struggle, according to town police records.


The charges against those hit with Tasers in Colonie ranged from disorderly conduct to criminal possession of a firearm. Some took place after car chases, while others occurred inside residences during violent domestic disputes. There were five cases in which people with mental health problems, including some who were allegedly high on drugs, were arrested with the help of a Taser.


Police say the most telling statistic of their use is that injuries during arrest have plummeted and officers with Tasers are not as likely to pull their guns. The weapons, which cost a minimum of $400 each, are used by about 2,000 departments in the United States and Canada.


``The Taser has actually replaced the nightstick on their belt,'' Heider said. ``From the town's standpoint, the amount of money paid to defend against an excessive force case, in one case, would pay for the cost of the Tasers. You just don't have injuries from them.''


Still, their use has stirred controversy. In Washington state earlier this month, a police sergeant was demoted for using his Taser gun 27 times as he arrested a woman over a dog complaint.


Also, recent media reports raising questions about the deaths of 40 people nationwide during Taser-related arrests have given some departments pause. Taser International officials dispute they are dangerous and insist there is no proof in any of those cases that the deaths were directly attributed to the electric shock. Many were related to drug use, they said.


Law enforcement experts who have studied the issue contend many of the critics overlook how many lives may have been saved during incidents in which officers fired Tasers instead of pulling their guns -- including instances where police were able to quickly subdue knife-wielding suspects.


The Albany Police Department has trained a dozen officers to use six Tasers that it recently purchased. But their deployment has been delayed while city attorneys investigate the death reports, research liability issues and study the department's proposed policy on their use.


But Albany police officials contend there have been incidents in which officers would have been better off with a Taser on their belt. One such case took place in 1999 when two city cops were seriously wounded on North Swan Street by a man who was high on crack cocaine. The suspect wrested away one of the officers' guns and shot them both.


Tracy Grady, who was being arrested on a minor warrant, is now serving a prison sentence of 50 years to life.


Alice Green, director of Albany's Center For Law & Justice -- which was formed as a community legal outreach center in 1985 following the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man by police -- said she would like to know more before Tasers are distributed. ``We need to know their policy on when and how they're going to use it,'' she said. ``Will it be used against children or pregnant women?''


State troopers do not carry Tasers. But other departments are getting Tasers or have started using them, including Guilderland's, which has used them for about eight months, officials said.


Guilderland Police Chief James Murley said the department has about 10 Tasers and has used them about that many times. ``We are looking into each officer having one,'' he said.


In Colonie, where Tasers are an integral part of policing methods, authorities said they don't see any reason to discontinue or curtail their use. As part of the training, about 80 percent of the town's police force took ``sample hits,'' so they would understand what a Taser feels like and what it does.


Now, ``every officer who goes out on the road carries one with him,'' said Investigator Michael Franze, a Taser instructor.