Crime & Courts

Law enforcement officials don't plan to change Taser policies

Local law enforcement officials say they are not going to change their policies on the use of Tasers even after the maker of the electronic stun device recently recommended aiming for somewhere other than a person's chest.

The recommendation sounds good in principle, local sheriffs say, but applying it in real life is another matter.

"It's an awkward edict that they've come out with," Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said. "It doesn't leave you much of a target to shoot at."

Critics claim Tasers have caused or contributed to deaths and injuries resulting from the electrical charge that temporarily immobilizes people struck by the probes.

"TASER has long stood by the fact that our technology is not risk free and is often used during violent and dangerous confrontations," said a Taser training e-mail bulletin.

The company's training bulletin does not state that the Taser causes heart-related problems, "only that the refined target zones avoid any potential controversy on this topic."

The company wants Taser users to aim below the sternum. That unifies the target for all Taser models, the training document states, and research has shown the probes are more effective if at least one lodges in a major muscle in the thigh or pelvic region.

"On paper, it's a good theory," Butler County Sheriff Craig Murphy said. "But in the heat of battle, all bets are off."

Both probes have to attach themselves to a person before a charge will activate. Aiming at arms or legs isn't feasible, officials said, because they are typically moving quite a bit during a confrontation.

"If someone is jumping around and moving, you're going to try to hit the largest body mass you can," Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said.

Of the cases in Harvey County where a Taser was used, "I can't recall any that weren't in the chest area," Walton said.

While Wichita and Sedgwick County law enforcement officials track the use of Tasers, Hinshaw said, the reports do not specify where the probes attached.

According to statistics provided by Wichita police, officers pulled a Taser from its holster more than 1,300 times last year, or more than three times a day.

Of that number, officers merely displayed the device 750 times. They fired the probes or pressed the Taser against the target another 564 times.

Sheriff's training

After Taser issued its training recommendation earlier this month, Sedgwick County sheriff's officials contacted company administrators to discuss it more fully, Hinshaw said.

"What they're saying is, 'This is a preferred target zone,' " he said.

That would make it similar to other weapons in an officer's arsenal, Hinshaw said.

Officers are taught to aim for the eyebrow line — not the eyes — when using pepper spray. With a baton, officers are taught to aim for the "common peroneal," where the sciatic nerve branches out between the hip and the knee.

"With this refinement, the timing is perfect," Hinshaw said. "All our personnel start going through Taser recertification next month."

While officers will be made aware of the recommendation, Hinshaw said he doesn't want it to have a chilling effect on the use of Tasers. He's read of officers who didn't use a Taser when they should have because they were afraid of being sued.

That can allow confrontations to escalate in danger — something law enforcement officials want to avoid.

"The emphasis would simply have to be, 'If you've got the time, this is where you need to aim,' " Hinshaw said.

WPD training

Wichita police officers are already taught to aim for where a belt buckle would be if the person was wearing one, Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said. But that's not because of what the electrical shock might do to a person.

"We're more concerned about what a probe will do to your eyeball or face or jugular vein" because of the small hooks the probes feature, Stolz said.

No changes are planned as a result of Taser's recommendation, he said.

"What our policy says is sound," Stolz said. "We'll tweak the policy once in a while based on what's going on in the real world."

Yet the recommendation may feed into what Stolz calls "an unreal expectation from the community" regarding the use of force by law enforcement officers.

"They think we have the ability to shoot guns out of people's hands" much like television shows and movies depicted decades ago, Stolz said.

That's not realistic.

"A Taser is not used unless we have somebody that is not complying with a request from law enforcement," he said. "Somebody's already ready to fight... we already have an agitated situation."

That makes effective use of a Taser important, he said, so injuries — or worse — can be avoided, whether it be the suspect, the law enforcement officer or bystanders.