Thursday, March 03, 2005

Public Has Its Say On Tasers - WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

Trust, Safety Common Themes At Forum; Many Police Officers Attend
Wisconsin State Journal :: FRONT :: A1
Thursday, March 3, 2005
Lisa Schuetz Wisconsin State Journal
The dozen or so people who commented at Wednesday night's public forum on Tasers did so in a room populated largely by the very people who support their use -- police officers and the stun-gun maker's president.

Still, the majority of the private citizens who spoke asked the Madison Police Department to change its policy on using Tasers.

The change is necessary, they said, not just because of potential injuries, but the potential for degrading trust and dialogue between police and the community.

Police Chief Noble Wray set up the meeting after complaints arose due to a January incident in which a school police officer used a Taser to stop a 14-year-old from fleeing during his arrest at Memorial High School. Many thought the use of force too severe for a juvenile.

Tasers have created controversy nationwide, said former Madison police officer Michael Scott, an assistant professor at the UW-Madison Law School and moderator for the nearly three-hour forum at Monona Terrace.

"We understand that for the police to carry out the duties that we as a society have set out for them, some use of force is inevitable," he said. "... But that does not mean that police alone decide how much and what type of force is appropriate. We citizens have a rightful say in that. We have exercised that right in the past and are doing so again here tonight."

Officer Eric Anderson gave the 65 or so attendees -- many who were police officers in their street clothes -- a demonstration on the types of force police use. Lt. Vic Wahl, in charge of the department's Taser program and author of a recent report on the subject, gave a tutorial on Tasers.

Tom Smith, president and co-founder of Taser International, spoke during the public comment period. He said Tasers are safe and have reduced the number of police-related deaths and injuries nationwide.

UW-Madison electrical engineering professor emeritus Theodore Bernstein was the only community member to speak in favor of Tasers.

He studied stun guns in the 1980s and wanted to elaborate on the science of Tasers.

Volts measure an electrical charge's push, he explained. The 50,000 volts the Taser uses are just enough to arc it through clothing. It is amperes that determine the danger of electricity, he said.

And in Tasers, while there's a good charge in the 2-ampere jolt, its short duration won't do serious damage, much less kill someone, Bernstein said.

Others were more concerned about the potential for officers to abuse a tool that allows them to quickly gain a suspect's compliance.

"I think we are in an arms race," said one speaker, saying officers are getting more high-powered guns and other tools, even as violent crime rates decline.

Erik Guenther, an attorney and vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, said Tasers should be used later rather than sooner in confrontations, especially those that don't include weapons.

The ACLU has said Tasers have a place in policing. But until independent medical studies have been completed -- a study cited by Wahl from a medical journal had two Taser International employees on the team -- they should be used with care.

Derrick Smith, father of a Memorial senior, spoke of his disgust in watching the nonuniformed officers snickering in the back of the room during some anti-Taser speakers' comments.

In his mind, it pointed to the real problem behind the use of Tasers -- the lack of trust between the public and the police.

"How can we get back that trust?" he asked. "After that Tasing incident in the schools, how can we get back that trust?"

Wray, with his department captains and assistant chiefs in the front row, told the audience that the input given at the meeting -- as well as comments forwarded to his office, from a March 8 Public Safety and Review Board meeting, and from city officials -- will be considered when reviewing the department's Taser use.

* On the Web: The Madison Police Department's report on Tasers is available at


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