In the two and a half years Lawrence police have been carrying bright yellow Tasers, the potentially painful and debilitating shock the devices can unload has become well-recognized by local suspects. And they want no part of it.
“Oh yeah, they know the yellow gun,” said Sgt. Matt Sarna, public affairs sergeant for the Lawrence police.
But the vast majority of the time, the Tasers never leave the holster.
In more than 300,000 police calls since the department got its first Tasers in 2008, the weapons have been used only 17 times. But the deterrent effect — the thought of being shot with the metal rods that seize a body’s muscles — is equally effective, Sarna said. Nearly three times as often — in 41 instances — Lawrence police have drawn a Taser, but didn’t use them.
For Lawrence police, Tasers have been a success, Sarna said. They’re “another tool for our officers to have on their tool belt.” But the hope is for infrequent use.
“It’s not something we teach them to use every time they go out on an incident,” Sarna said. “We always want to see the numbers low.”
The 41 officers — roughly a fourth of the department — who carry the $1,000 Tasers went through training on how to use them, when to use them and what it feels like to be stunned with one. Sarna said being stunned gives officers an idea of what they may potentially be putting a suspect through.
“We do know what it feels like. It hurts,” he said, adding that Tasers are used only when a suspect is actively trying to harm an officer or someone else.
When an officer pulls the trigger, two thin metal rods — which can reach up to 25 feet — shoot out. When they pierce a person’s skin, an electrical shock is administered through cords connected to the device. The Tasers administer a fraction of an amp, which is enough to temporarily disable a person’s muscle control, allowing police to make an arrest. Once the rods attach, officers can give additional jolts every five seconds.
TASER International, the manufacturer, describes the voltage used by Tasers as far less than Christmas tree lights or a wall socket.
But Tasers — used by more than 14,000 law enforcement agencies worldwide — are not without their critics or high-profile, lethal incidents.
In July, a Lansing man died after Leavenworth police used a Taser on him three times. However, preliminary autopsy reports showed the man had cocaine in his system and had an enlarged heart, which may have contributed to his death. Earlier this year, Shawnee County settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $350,000 following the 2008 death of a man stunned by Topeka police.
Amnesty International attributes to Tasers more than 300 deaths worldwide since 2001.
To prevent possible medical problems with Tasers, Sarna said Lawrence police follow strict safety measures. Every time an officer uses a Taser on a suspect, that person is taken to the hospital as a precaution. No serious injuries have resulted since the department began using Tasers, and the positives have far outweighed the negatives in Lawrence, he said.
“It hasn’t proven to be a problem in Lawrence,” Sarna said. “It’s just a perfect example of a less-lethal weapon we can use to stop somebody.”