TASER comes to the coast (Point Reyes Light, 02.12.2009)

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Photo by Eli Hamann

West Marin deputies just added a 7-ounce device to their belts—the Taser X26. The $800 electronic device has not yet been deployed on the coast, but elsewhere in the county, the tool has been pulled out of its holster a dozen times since it was introduced in November. Of those times, it has been discharged twice.

“It’s an alternative to more aggressive means,” said Marin County Sheriff’s Deputy Ron Fode. “What would you rather have, a baton breaking your bones or a Taser stunning you?”

Fode’s belt weighs over 30 pounds. From right to left, he carries a baton, pepper spray, gun, handcuffs, keys, two bullet magazines, Taser, flashlight and radio.

“It’s an excellent less lethal force option for our department,” said Sergeant Jesse Klinge, the Taser coordinator for the Marin County Sheriffs Office (MCSO). “Its use dramatically reduces injuries to suspects and officers.”

According to the MSCO, the Taser has about the same level of force as the baton. Verbal commands, control holds, strikes, pepper spray—in that order—rank lower on the force spectrum. Above the Taser and baton are beanbag shotguns and the firearm.

The sheriff’s department is one of the last agencies in the county to begin carrying the Taser. Sheriff Robert Doyle waited until he was assured by the statistics and medical research, according to Klinge.

“Numerous studies say it’s not supposed to affect the heart,” Klinge said. “There are some people out there who, due to their meth habit or something else they do, make their heart susceptible, and if we were trying to arrest them, it wouldn’t matter if it was the Taser or the ground or pepper spray—something could happen.”

The Taser affects the motor and sensory functions of the nervous system, incapacitating the suspect. The electrical pulses sent into the body prevent muscle control and coordination.

“They can’t fight you,” Klinge said. “It gives us the opportunity to handcuff them.” According to TASER International Inc., the subject should recover immediately.

The X26 has a replaceable cartridge that deploys two small probes attached to the Taser by insulated wires—the cartridges deputies carry can shoot up to 25 feet. When the safety is turned off, a red light beams onto the target. When the trigger is pulled, the probe on top shoots straight towards the red light, while the probe on the bottom curves down. The further away the target is, the more spread out the probes are.

Each dart-like probe can penetrate one inch of clothing, and they shock on contact for five seconds. The trigger needs to be pulled again if the deputy needs to stun the suspect for an additional five seconds. Later on, emergency personnel must remove the probes from the suspect.

The X26 is also equipped with a “Taser-cam”—which records audio and video once the safety is turned off.

Deputies were required to attend a comprehensive 8-hour training before they were certified to use the new tool. Seven out of eight of West Marin’s deputies were all certified between November and December. They also chose from three different styles of holsters.

In addition to a powerpoint presentation and policy review, the training included hands-on Taser familiarization exercises in which deputies used paper silhouettes to target shoot. “It doesn’t really feel like anything when you pull the trigger. There’s no recoil,” Fode said.

Like all certified patrol deputies, Fode keeps his Taser on the opposite side of his firearm. Both the yellow handle of his Taser and the black firearm point to the right.

“We really work on muscle memory—taking it in and out of the holster,” Klinge said. “When you do a certain task the same way for a while, you build that memory so you avoid the confusion of grabbing the wrong thing.”

During training, 44 deputies in total volunteered to be stunned by certified instructors over the course of several classes.

“They were totally incapacitated,” said Klinge, who is one of the eight instructors in the sheriff’s office. “There was nothing they could do.” To prevent them from falling to the ground, deputies on either side of them set the volunteers on the ground. The impact site is small, sometimes with slight bleeding.

In fourth grade, Fode was electrocuted when he touched a livewire while he was on a raft. “I have no fond recollection of electricity,” he said. “I know what it is, I don’t need to experience it to know what it does.”

There were three things that the deputies were trained to avoid: shocking a person who is in an elevated position and can’t brace their fall, deploying near anything that is flammable and ignitable or stunning anyone in a body of water. “You don’t want to shock someone when they’re on the roof or a ladder, or on a boat where they could fall into the water or riding a speeding motorcycle,” Fode said.

Every deputy who took the training passed the written test and was certified.

“We always want to take people into custody using the least amount of force possible,” Klinge said. “It’s proven to be effective, but since we just implemented the program, it’s tough to say it’s a resounding ‘Yes, it is not dangerous.’”

Last Friday, I rode shotgun with Fode while he patrolled the route between Olema and the Sonoma County line. Around 5 p.m., south of Marshall, Fode saw a car near the water where parking isn’t allowed. A woman was sitting in the passenger seat, and a man was standing next to her, behind an open passenger door. Fode walked up to the car, turning on his radio.

He checked their licenses to make sure there were no warrants on them, and then he advised them of their trespass.

“I always have to think, officer safety, officer safety. They know who I am, but I don’t know what they’re about,” Fode said afterwards. “The car door was open and maybe he’s holding a knife or a gun. Before the Taser, the only option in that case would be to use the gun.”

“It’s really changing law enforcement,” Klinge said.

“Things have come a long ways,” Fode added.

~ by Janet Fang on February 16, 2009.

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