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Subduing Suspects More Safely

Charles Sheriff Deputies Use 12 New Taser Electric Stun Devices

By Arthur Santana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page SM03

As 911 calls go, this one was a bit unusual.

A 54-year-old Florida man had barricaded himself inside a bedroom in a house in Newburg and started throwing things out a window while "talking out of his mind," said Lt. Michael McGuigan of the Charles County Sheriff's Office.

Deputies soon realized that trying to coax the man out of the house would be futile. The officers concluded the man was clearly irrational, perhaps mentally unstable -- he had placed the 911 call himself.

Lt. Michael McGuigan aims a Taser. When fired, probes are released, attach to a suspect and deliver electrical current. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

Ruling out lethal force as not warranted by the situation, the officers knew they had only a few options: They could squirt the man with pepper spray, whack him with a police stick or tackle him.

McGuigan, however, was equipped to try a new tactic. After sneaking onto an enclosed porch at the house on Budds Creek Road, McGuigan fired at the man with a Taser electric stun device, which delivered a 50,000-volt electrical current via two quarter-inch fishhook-like probes.

The man was, as expected, incapacitated long enough for officers to control him and place him in handcuffs before taking him to a local hospital for a mental evaluation. McGuigan said the Taser "worked fantastic" in what he called "a perfect scenario to deploy."

The Sept. 23 incident was the first time the Charles County Sheriff's Office used the devices, which are new to the local law enforcement arsenal. The Sheriff's Office has 12 Tasers, and officials hope to have 20 more by year's end. McGuigan said that in three years, he hopes all 114 patrol officers in the department will have one.

It's all part of an effort by the Sheriff's Office to join surrounding police agencies that use the Tasers, including those in Calvert, St. Mary's and Prince George's counties. Officials say the devices will help reduce the number of hand-to-hand scuffles with suspects.

"We want to decrease the number of incidents in which an officer has to fight with a suspect," said McGuigan, who has trained nine officers to carry Tasers. "It's going to prevent suspects and officers from getting seriously hurt."

Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz., company that makes the Taser X26 -- the newest model and the one used by the Sheriff's Office -- said the weapons are used by more than 6,000 police agencies in the United States. More than 1,150 of those police agencies, including those in Phoenix, San Diego, Sacramento, Albuquerque and Reno, Nev., have purchased Tasers for every patrol officer, Tuttle said.

The devices are greatly reducing injuries to officers and suspects in addition to saving lives every day, Tuttle said. "We're seeing a snowball effect," he said, citing an 80 percent drop in injuries to deputies at the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Florida and a 67 percent drop in injuries to suspects at the Phoenix Police Department.

In Charles County, the Sheriff's Office became interested about two years ago in a nonlethal alternative to make suspects comply with officers' orders, McGuigan said.

He said pepper spray does not always work and, once used, can pollute an area and hinder the officer who used it. "It creates a mess," McGuigan said.

He said ASP batons -- retractable steel batons used like billy clubs -- are also not always effective in dealing with a suspect.

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