Electroshock guns may again spark debate in town, despite being used only twice by Ridgefield Police since they were acquired in 2008.
Replacement of five Tasers that have been going out on patrol with officers regularly for four years are in the department’s budget plans for 2013-14.
“It’s just another tool, and it keeps the officers safe,” said Capt. Tom Comstock, the Ridgefield Police Department’s public information officer.
That wasn’t how Jan Rifkinson seemed to view things when he spoke briefly in the public comment period at a recent selectmen’s meeting.
While the electroshock weapons are touted as safe, he said, the evidence accumulating nationwide suggests otherwise. “So far, about 500 people have died as a result of being Tased,” Mr. Rifkinson told the selectmen.
Amnesty International said in a February 2012 press release that a man shocked with a police Taser in Georgia was the 500th death in the United States from Taser use since 2001. An article published online by the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation said the shock from a Taser “can cause cardiac electric capture and provoke cardiac arrest.”
A spokesman for Taser International responded to the Cincinnati Enquirer at the time that the Heart Association “article does not support a cause-effect association and fails to accurately evaluate the risks versus benefits of the thousands of lives saved by police with Taser devices.”
By equipping police with Tasers, the town leaves itself open to “an unintended death” and a lot of legal liability, Mr. Rifkinson said.
“I don’t think we need them. Police have many methods of subduing a person before using a gun,” he said. “It’s too easy to pull out a Taser and use it.”
“That hasn’t happened in Ridgefield,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
“I’m not suggesting it has,” Mr. Rifkinson replied.
Asked about the department’s use of Tasers, Capt. Comstock said his research showed they’d only been employed twice. Both incidents occurred in 2009, and were reported on in the Dec. 17, 2009, Ridgefield Press. The department first got Tasers — after considerable controversy — in late 2007 and they were first deployed with officers on duty in March 2008.
For the December 2009 Press story, the department produced brief accounts of the two incidents in which officers employed its X26 model Tasers, which provide automatic video recording any time the weapons are activated for use.
One use, in March 2009, was against a 52-year-old man who was intoxicated, “exhibited violent tendencies,” and had caused damage to a home in town.
“The individual refused to follow officers’ instructions and threatened to assault anyone who came near him,” the account released by the department said. “The individual attempted to force his way back into the home and failed to comply with officers’ commands to stop. The Taser was deployed to control the individual.”
The man was taken to the hospital, treated, and released to police custody.
Police later found there were guns in the home, one of them loaded.
The second incident was in October 2009, when police were called to assist with a 23-year-old man who was described as violent and aggressive, had threatened to harm himself, and had gone into the woods behind his family’s house.
“Officers located the individual treading water in a pond behind the house, threatening to harm himself and anyone who came near him,” the department said. “The subject was talked out of the pond. However, once on land he clenched his fists and moved toward officers. The Taser was deployed, subduing the subject…”
He, too, was taken to the hospital, treated and released to police custody.
The men in both incidents were charged with criminal mischief, interfering with an officer, disorderly conduct, assaulting and threatening, police said.
Capt. Comstock said he had been one of the officers who responded to the scene with the young man in the pond. There was considerable communication with the man. The electronic weapon was used only when he came at officers, Capt. Comstock said.
“If we can talk to somebody, we will,” he said. “Our job as a police officer is not to hurt somebody, and the Taser assists that.”
The five Tasers the department has had since 2007 were purchased with a donation, since the selectmen had mixed feelings about them, and took money out of the budget. Now, the department plans to replace them.
“The other guns are reaching their useful life,” Capt. Comstock said. “We only have five of them. They’re out 24-7.”
The plan is to replace them with another brand of electronic weapon, from the Karbon Arms, the Karbon MPID (multi-purpose immobilization device), Capt. Comstock said.
They’ll have video and audio recorders that will automatically document each use. The Karbon Arms weapons use batteries rather than needing to be recharged.
They also work slightly differently than Taser brand weapons, firing “a series of micro-pulses that ‘add up’ to the strength of a single large pulse but last much longer on the muscles,” according to literature from the company.
And they’re a little cheaper.
The Police Department has not released its budget proposal, and did not provide a figure on the anticipated cost of replacing the five-year-old Tasers with new Karbon MPIDs.
The five Tasers purchased in 2007 cost about $9,000.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said he expected a request to buy new electronic weapons would be scrutinized closely by the selectmen, though he doesn’t have a problem with them himself.
“As far as I’m concerned, personally, the use of a Taser is better than the use of a gun, to be very honest with you,” he said.
Capt. Comstock said the other items officers routinely carry include: a straight baton, Mace, pepper spray, a radio, a 40 caliber Glock pistol and, in the patrol car, a shotgun.
The electronic immobilization weapons not only provide a less lethal alternative to guns, but also reduce the number of times officers end up “wrestling someone in an arrest,” Mr. Marconi said.
Average citizens may not understand what such situations are like.
“People see TV and they see someone put up against a wall and handcuffed and they think it’s an easy thing to subdue somebody,” Captain Comstock said. “It’s not an easy task.”
And, officers are less likely to get hurt if they stay out of physical struggles.
“I’d much rather see them use a Taser than get into a wrestling match with any person breaking the law,” Mr. Marconi said. “That does happen. People don’t see it often, but believe me, it happens.”
Just the threat of an electronic shock weapon can make belligerent people more cooperative.
“That can certainly be a very convincing tool of inducement for someone to come peaceably,” Mr. Marconi said.
Selectwoman Barbara Manners, one of the selectmen who opposed buying the Tasers in 2007, said she’s still troubled by them. But she’s willing to listen.
“If they are indeed requesting them again, I will be speaking to my initial opposition to them,” she said. “But maybe they can convince me they need them. I am open to reasonable persuasion.”
Captain Comstock said the discussion of electronic weapons should be framed by the understanding they’re simply one of numerous tools officers have to use in situations where talking isn’t practical, or hasn’t worked.
“It’s not like they’re over-used. We’ve only Tased twice,” he said. “We don’t teach the guys just to use the Taser. We look at our greatest tool as our mouth.”