In Philadelphia, cops talk shock about stun guns

Posted: August 06, 2010

In a Louisiana hospital last month, security guards Tasered the epileptic, suicidal nephew of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, triggering a seizure and a wave of public outcry over the use of stun guns in medical centers.

In Arizona, a young doctor died in 2008 after suffering a seizure while driving to work - and getting Tasered five times by a highway patrol officer who pulled him over for erratic driving.

And Philadelphia sports fans got even more notoriety - and city police, more criticism - after a cop Tasered a teenager who had leaped onto the field during a Phillies game in May.

With the use of stun guns more hotly debated than ever, crime-fighters from around the globe gathered in Philadelphia earlier this week for a two-day conference to tighten guidelines for the proper use of "controlled electronic devices."

The meeting was hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit, independent police think-tank based in Washington. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is the group's elected president.

"We're looking at the whole issue of use of force: How do you handle people when you have to get control of them?" said Chuck Wexler, the group's executive director. "Our purpose is to do it in the most peaceful way to minimize injuries to that person and to the police officers."

The group already had 55 guidelines it developed five years ago at the U.S. Department of Justice's bidding. After this week's meeting, Wexler aims to have the tweaked guidelines completed by September.

Amnesty International has called for a moratorium on stun guns, saying police use them as tools of routine force rather than as an alternative to firearms. Since June 2001, more than 350 people have died in the United States after being shocked by police stun guns, according to the human-rights group.

But Wexler's group found that police departments that use stun guns have fewer injuries to suspects and officers than those that don't, according to a September 2009 study.

To use a stun gun in Philadelphia, police must complete crisis-intervention training, a five-day session on mental-health awareness and other issues, said Lt. Francis Healy, Ramsey's special adviser. About 700 Tasers now are deployed for use citywide.

"It's a great piece of equipment, but it has to be used appropriately so we don't have these public outcries of misuse and abuse," Healy said.

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