Tasers

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When a stocky 260-pound suspect needs an attitude change, police should carry few other weapons than a Taser.

Lewiston police now have them, joining Auburn. Farmington has Tasers, soon will Jay. Many police agencies in Maine have the devices, enough to prompt the Maine Chiefs of Police Association and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to investigate creating a model Taser policy for the state.

Those agencies with Tasers can point to scenarios where they’ve subdued dangerous situations. Like on July 10 in Auburn, when an armed man set his home alight. An officer took aim though a window at David Surette with a Taser, and the standoff ended without further violence or damage.

In that case, the Taser was the right tool for the right job, the exact way one should be used.

For as valuable as Tasers can be, allegations of misuse have been prevalent. Reviews of Taser application in various police situations in the United States have found questionable practices, such as use on handcuffed suspects, pregnant women and the homeless. A South Portland man is suing that city’s police department in Maine’s first Taser-related excessive force lawsuit.

And, on Monday, a 47-year-old grandfather in Denver, Colo., was tasered and later died after an incident in which police said he was acting wildly.

A full report from the National Institute of Justice on Taser deaths is expected in 2008. “As the number of law enforcement agencies using stun guns has increased, the number of deaths reported to be associated with this less-lethal technology also has increased,” the NIJ’s Web site states.

It’s an obvious conclusion, as this report is coming after years of Taser use in law enforcement; their 50,000 volts of personality adjustment has been examined in myriad police contexts. One reason Tasers are coming to Maine now, agencies say, was to allow legal precedents about their use to develop, according to the Portland Press Herald.

Two clear truths seems to have emerged about Tasers: When saving a life, or stopping a situation from spiraling out of control, Tasers are usually applauded for their non-lethal effectiveness. When applied under less transparent circumstances, Tasers are viewed more dimly.

This track record must be heeded as more Maine agencies adopt Tasers. Tasers are perfect for some situations; in others, old-fashioned communication, not sudden incapacitation, remains superior.

We want law enforcement to have every form of non-lethal force at its disposal, especially when an out-of-control brute is rampaging. But Tasers aren’t right for every job, and until the NIJ’s report is published, many questions about their physical impact remain.

And like any instrument of force, we hope the Taser’s power as a deterrent is greater than its voltage.

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