Police Use New Tasers Frequently; Stun Guns Subdue 105 People in First 4 Months

By John Diedrich, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In March, Milwaukee police fired a Taser stun gun at a 63-year-old grandmother who was trying to keep child welfare workers from taking her grandson. A week later, officers shot a man who carried six officers 10 feet on his back before multiple shocks from the Taser brought him to his knees.

One suspect rated the pain from a Taser as a 40 -- on a scale of 1 to 10. Another jumped right back up and told officers, "Is that all you got?"

The examples, drawn from police records, show that in the first few months of Taser use in Milwaukee, the targets and their reactions varied.

Milwaukee police zapped 105 suspects between March 16 and July 31 with the 50,000-volt guns, according to a police official. That''s five times a week. The department has 14 Tasers in the field. The rate was slightly higher in the first 12 weeks, when 67 suspects were hit with Tasers, an average of nearly six per week, police records showed.

A police official offered a couple of explanations for the Tasers'' frequent use.

"When officers have a new tool, they will use that tool more often than any other tool they have on their belt as long as it fits the guidelines," said Sgt. Mike Kuspa, who is in charge of the department''s one-year trial of Tasers.

The Taser, an increasingly popular and controversial tool among police departments as a hands-off way to subdue suspects, may also have been used more because it was new to the public, Kuspa said. Now police are encountering people who fear the Taser, which has been nicknamed "Shocka," Kuspa said.

"The streets are talking," Kuspa said, adding that officers have told him of combative suspects who cooperated once they saw a Taser on the officer''s belt.

No serious injuries

The typical suspect hit by a Milwaukee police officer''s Taser was a 25-year-old black male who was not armed but was resisting arrest, according to reports from the first 12 weeks of Taser use -- from March 16 to June 10.

The reports also show seven out of 10 of the suspects were sober, just over half had been committing crimes and 70% were injured in some way by the Taser, though none seriously in those first 12 weeks of use. One suspect was seriously injured in early July when he fell and hit his head on the street after being shot by the Taser, but he recovered, Kuspa said.

The Fire and Police Commission had received one citizen complaint about the Tasers as of Friday, but details were not available, said Steven Fronk, hearing examiner for the commission. The Milwaukee Police Department had three complaints it was investigating, officials said Tuesday.Fifty-nine Milwaukee officers have been trained to fire Tasers, and in the first 12 weeks of use, 31 officers used them, reports show. Three officers used the weapon six times each, the most uses by any officer, reports show.

Kuspa wasn''t surprised that 96% of the suspects were unarmed. Tasers are not intended to replace the officer''s gun, but instead will serve as an alternative to pepper spray or physically restraining a suspect, he said.

"You don''t go to a gunfight with a Taser," Kuspa said, "and you don''t go to a knife fight with a Taser."

Taser International Inc., which makes the guns, says they are "non-lethal." Milwaukee police label the Taser as "less lethal," Kuspa said, because the department can''t be sure of the company''s claim. "It could (be lethal). May or may not," he said.

The department spent about $10,000 on the guns, and Chief Nannette Hegerty will decide next year whether to extend the program. Each gun costs $400 plus another roughly $300 for accessories and cartridges.

Taser use spreading

Police in the city of Waukesha already have decided to outfit all of their officers with Tasers, if there is money to pay for it, said Deputy Chief Wayne Dussault. The department has 12 Tasers that have been fired at suspects 60 times since October, an average of six per month, vs. Milwaukee''s average of five per week.

"We are policing different areas," Kuspa said of the lower rates of Taser use by departments elsewhere in Wisconsin.

More than 180 Wisconsin law enforcement agencies have Tasers or are in the process of buying them, according to the company. The Milwaukee County Sheriff''s Department just announced it will buy 130 Tasers.

Nationwide, questions have been raised about the device''s safety. Suspects have been hospitalized after being shot with a Taser and at least 42 have died afterward, according to recent stories in The New York Times and The Arizona Republic. A spokesman for Taser International said their device has not been implicated as the cause in any of the deaths, but the Republic reported the Taser was cited as a contributing factor in at least five deaths.

Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations groups have raised concerns about Taser use.

The weapon fires two barbed probes connected to thin wires from as far as 21 feet away. Officers also can "drive stun" a suspect by pressing it against the body and firing.

Running off eight AA batteries, the gun sends 50,000 volts to the suspect''s body, but with a low amperage that is not supposed to interfere with a pacemaker. For five seconds, the suspect loses muscle control and generally collapses.

Whenever a Taser is fired, it also ejects confetti printed with a serial number unique to that gun so officers can''t fire it without being traced, Kuspa said. The department plugs in the guns after a shift to check if they have been fired, he said.

Never run again

Milwaukee police first used the Taser on March 16 when Raymond Brooks, 20, ran after being pulled over by officers in the 2800 block of N. 17th St., the use-of-force report says.

The officers said they chased Brooks for two blocks, cornered him, and ordered him to the ground. Brooks, who could not be reached for comment, then ran and was tackled by police, the report says. Officer Mark Harms shot Brooks with a Taser as he kept struggling.

Brooks immediately stopped resisting and police arrested him, the report says.

Afterward, Brooks told investigators he ran because he had just gotten out of jail and didn''t have a driver''s license. Referring to the Taser, he said, "I ain''t never felt no (expletive) like that." He had two small puncture wounds and felt pain in his kidney but refused medical treatment. He said he would never run from police again.

On March 23, police came to the home of Antonia Page after child welfare workers called for help in taking custody of Page''s 14-month-old grandson, Phillip Evans.

The report says Page, 63, had her arm around the boy''s neck and refused to release him. Officer Paul Newell warned Page, who stands 4 feet 11 inches, that he would shock her, and then fired the Taser, allowing officers to remove the child, the report says.

Kuspa said officers feared Page was hurting the boy. "(The officers) knew they had to do something," Kuspa said. "Some would say because of her age it was a questionable use, but not based on the totality of the situation."

Page denied she had her arm around the boy''s neck. He was simply sitting behind her as police confronted her, she said.

The report says Page was shot once, but she said it was twice and showed two marks on her arm and side.

"There was absolutely no cause to do that. I could see if I were a criminal or something," Page said. "They have a new toy and they have to use it."

Little effect on some

Eight days later, police used the Taser after Elliott Dorsey, 28, resisted arrest on suspicion of drug dealing, the report says. With six officers on his back, Dorsey moved 10 feet down the block. He easily broke a pair of plastic "flex cuffs" they put on his hands and wasn''t affected by two blasts of pepper spray, the report says.

Even the first few zaps with the Taser by Officer Thomas Dineen had little effect on Dorsey, but repeated shots finally allowed officers to put cuffs and shackles on him, the report says. Dorsey could not be reached for comment.

Such incidents show how valuable the Taser can be, Kuspa said.

"Is this going to save lives? I don''t know, but I know this: It will prevent injuries to suspects and officers if used in the right way," he said.

Perhaps the most public use of the Taser was on N. Water St. following RiverSplash on June 5. Officers on horseback were clearing the street shortly after 2 a.m. when Chad Swalheim, 25, refused to leave, the report says. Swalheim, of Wauwatosa, was taking pictures of the officers removing others and said, "I''m exercising my freedom of speech." He struggled with police and was shot by Officer Torrey Lea with the Taser and arrested, the report says.

Swalheim denied ever resisting police. He said he took the pictures because police were roughing up his friends. He said he started to walk away when police tackled him from behind, then stood him up and hit him with a Taser. He said he still has numbness in his hand, which started after he was shot with the Taser.

Swalheim said he supports police having Tasers. "I''m glad they have it for situations they need it, but it was abused in my case."

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