Shooting Renews Stun Gun Debate
Rise in Incidents Has Department Looking at Nonlethal Option

By Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

As Anne Arundel County police investigate the third shooting by officers this month, the department is looking with new urgency at the need for stun guns and other nonlethal means of force.

The latest incident occurred Sunday when a Glen Burnie teenager was shot and killed after he allegedly charged officers with a pair of nine-inch scissors and repeatedly urged officers to fire, authorities said.

Justin J. Fisher, 18, a Salisbury University freshman, was struck five times in the chest by four officers after a tense 35-minute standoff as his mother and other family members stood nearby, Police Chief Paul Shanahan said yesterday.

Shanahan said a preliminary inquiry shows his officers' actions were justified, although an investigation is underway. State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee will review the findings, Shanahan said.

The officers who shot Fisher were identified yesterday as Daniel De Lorenzo, Edward Hildebrand, Michael Flaig and Scott Clinton. They had from 1 1/2 to five years' experience on the force, Lt. David Waltemeyer said. He did not know whether any of the men had been involved in previous shootings.

Anne Arundel police don't carry stun guns, and the only nonlethal weapons available to the officers were pepper spray and nightsticks, Shanahan said.

The department began looking into buying stun guns last year but was barred from using them by county code. The union and rank-and-file officers persuaded the County Council to amend the law in April. But the department has moved cautiously, citing controversy over the use of the devices and the need to investigate them.

"There just wasn't a clear need for it," Shanahan said. Until this month, the department had only five shootings by officers in the past five years, according to police. Only one resulted in a fatality: a May 2005 incident in which a rookie officer shot and killed a nude, unarmed man after he allegedly charged toward him.

But in the past two weeks, the department saw a sharp rise in shootings. On May 2, a patrol officer responding to a report of a possibly suicidal person shot a Herald Harbor man after he allegedly threatened officers with a rifle. Two days later, a detective shot a Pasadena man in the head when the man rammed another officer's car in an attempt to resist arrest. Both suspects survived, and the incidents are under investigation. In both incidents, officers' lives appeared in imminent danger, Shanahan said. The most recent shooting, however, has sparked an internal debate over the use of stun guns.

"It's tough to look at any use-of-force situation and try to determine how it would have played out had a different kind of technology and weaponry been at hand," said O'Brien Atkinson IV, president of the county police union. "But I think this situation, as opposed to the two others, would have been a better opportunity for use of the Taser," he added, referring to a brand of stun gun.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International called on police organizations to stop using stun guns pending an independent inquiry into their use. More than 150 people have died in the United States after being struck by such weapons since 2001, the organization said.

But Michael White, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that in none of those instances has a medical examiner tied the cause of death to the weapon.

White said there has been little research on whether Tasers are safe or effective. The Justice Department is studying that question, he said.

According to police, Fisher and his 17-year-old girlfriend attended her senior prom earlier that evening before getting in an argument at her Pasadena residence. Afraid that Fisher was going to stab himself and her, the girl called Fisher's mother, who immediately dialed police about 4:30 a.m., Shanahan said. She told police that her son had psychotic episodes and might not be taking his medication, Shanahan said.

By the time police arrived, Fisher had stabbed himself in the arm and was threatening to further harm himself, Shanahan said, and there wasn't time to get mental health experts to the scene.

Police have described the incident as a suspected "suicide by cop."

An attorney for the Fishers said yesterday that the family "was in shock and seclusion."

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