Taser Debate: HPD and Sheriff's Office Say It's a Good Tool

As the use of Tasers by lawmen across the state has increased over the past few years, so have the number of complaints about abuse of the devices and questions about their safety. But as Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the Houston area's two largest law enforcement agencies say they still consider Tasers valuable tools and that they're far better than most alternatives.

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The Harris County Sheriff's Office began using Tasers in June of 2004 and since then deputies have deployed the devices 438 times. Almost 700 deputies and other personnel carry Tasers as additional non-lethal ways to subdue uncooperative subjects. Sheriff's Lieutenant John Martin says despite the criticism of Tasers, they've become useful tools.

"We see this as a way to avoid having to engage in these prolonged physical confrontations with somebody because that is very likely to result in injuries to both the officer and the suspect."

In the Sheriff's office official use of force policy, the use of Tasers is relatively high on the list, right after physical presence, verbal commands and what are known as empty hand control techniques. Martin says Tasers were never meant to be used in lieu of lethal force.

"If we're confronted with lethal force, we will respond with lethal force and the Taser is not meant to be a substitute for that."

Lawmakers in Austin are considering several bills that would restrict or completely do away with Tasers in Texas. Martin says that's not the answer.

"We would go back to these situations where we have to try to physically restrain people or situations where we're going to use some intermediate weapon like an impact weapon. That is going to result in injuries to the subject, whether it's bruises or broken bones."

With the exception of very basic guidelines under the state penal code, there are no uniform standards for the use of Tasers in Texas. The Houston Police Department's Taser policy puts the devices in the intermediate force category, along with pepper spray, batons and bean bag rounds. Executive Assistant Chief Charles McClelland says having use of force alternatives makes sense.

"In layman's terms, it's no different than a carpenter. If a carpenter only had a hammer in his toolbox, then every problem is a nail."

Since December of 2004, HPD officers have deployed Tasers more than a thousand times. With 3,500 Tasers currently carried by HPD officers, McClelland says taking them away wouldn't be fair.

"Just to say abandon the technology and call for a moratorium without any clinical studies or research saying that this is detrimental to someone's physical health I think is a rush to judgment."

State Senator Rodney Ellis has heard the Taser debate and says it may come down to something very simple.

"We want to do as much as we can to make sure that we save lives and obviously if someone has a choice of being Tasered or shot to death, you hope to be Tasered and hope you don't die."

Both the Sheriff's Office and HPD say requiring across-the-board standards would disregard the unique challenges of each individual agency and their need to tailor their own policies.

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