On a recent Saturday night, Stoughton police officers were called to a social club on Porter Street. A fight had broken out at a baby shower attended by more than 200 people at Club Luis de Camoes, and the fight escalated into a full brawl in a scene that Stoughton Police Executive Officer Robert Devine later described as “incredible chaos.”
It took almost an hour for 20 officers from Stoughton, three other local departments, the State Police, and the Norfolk County Sheriff’s Office to get the situation under control and arrest four people.
No one involved in the incident suffered injuries that required hospitalization, and Devine credits the use of a Taser — an electroshock weapon manufactured by Taser International — on one of the suspects with helping to defuse the situation.
“Had we not had the Tasers, the officers, in my opinion, would have been justified in using firearms,” said Devine. “I think their threat kept folks at bay and assisted in getting control of the situation. I know it did.”
Twenty-three police departments south of Boston now have access to Tasers, which fire gas-propelled prongs that attach themselves to the skin of a suspect. The powerful electric jolt that follows temporarily incapacitates a suspect without permanent injury, its manufacturer says. Fourteen departments issue the weapon to all patrol officers. Some departments, such as Stoughton and Hingham, require all officers to carry them, while others, including Foxborough and Mansfield, make them available to all patrol officers but do not mandate their use.
“We want every officer to have their own weapon because we want the officer to be accountable for that weapon,” said Stoughton Police Chief Paul Shastany. The federal government does not consider Tasers firearms and does not require a permit to carry them, but Massachusetts, three other states, and the District of Columbia do not allow citizens to carry Tasers.
Their use in any way is considered a use of force by all departments that issue them. And, said Devine, “Every use of force is looked into by the command staff.”
Police officials invariably hailed the Taser’s effectiveness as a deterrent and said they are more humane than other weapons — such as a nightstick or pepper spray — that might be used in a similar situation.
Freetown police Lieutenant Steven Abbott said his Taser helped him subdue a 68-year-old mentally ill woman armed with a butcher knife who had already stabbed a family member, preventing further injury.
Foxborough Police Chief Edward Leary said his department has had Tasers since 2007, and has used one to subdue an unruly prisoner.
“We have deployed them four or five times, with only one actual use of force,” he said, citing a situation in which a large, violent prisoner in a police holding cell ripped up the cell, plugging up a toilet and causing it to overflow, creating a dangerous situation for the staff.
All of Abington’s 24 police officers were issued Tasers about two years ago, but, said Abington Deputy Police Chief Chris Cutter, “We haven’t had to use them in full deployment with the probes.”
Cutter said that on “three or four occasions” the weapons have been used in their other available mode — the “drive,” or stun, mode — in which they can be used to inflict pain without incapacitating a suspect. He said the mere threat of the weapon — especially when the laser-sighting system is turned on and can be seen — is usually enough to get a suspect to back down. He cited a recent incident in which a suspect seemed about to assault an officer but stopped when the Taser was deployed, and no one was hurt.
“It’s been just as effective as a deterrent as it has been as a weapon,” Cutter said.
Hingham police Lieutenant John Norkaitis said all patrol officers in the town are required to carry their own Tasers. “It’s more humane than a nightstick or pepper spray, and it doesn’t have the lasting consequences of the nightstick,” he said. “People forget a nightstick is essentially a metal pipe and it can inflict tremendous damage.”
Pepper spray can also cause serious injuries, and even death, to those with heart or respiratory problems.
The state Executive Office of Public Safety requires police officers to undergo 24 hours of training with the weapon and must also approve a department’s Taser use policy before the weapons can be issued.
In an effort to avoid possible legal challenges, Shastany said he asked Scott Greenwood, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and a specialist on use-of-force issues, to review Stoughton’s Taser policy before issuing the weapon last June. In an e-mail, Greenwood described Stoughton’s policy as fairly restrictive on Taser use, limiting the firing of the Tasers to subjects exhibiting active aggression or assaultive behavior.
During the 24 hours of training, officers have the option of being “Tased,” to show not only the weapon’s effectiveness but also its temporary effects, and among those who took the opportunity were Stoughton’s Devine and Shastany, as well as Leary and East Bridgewater police Sergeant Michael McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, who produced an informational video on the weapons for the town’s community access channel, said several department officers conducting the training were also Tased.
“I wouldn’t want to ask someone else to do it without knowing myself what we’re dealing with,” he said, describing the feeling of being Tased as “terrible.”
Many Tasers used by law enforcement have cameras that are automatically activated and start recording when the weapon is turned on. Devine said the video record becomes part of the evidence in an incident.
O’Leary, who reviews use of his department’s Tasers, said his officers’ behavior with the weapon has been responsible.
According to a 2009 report by the Washington, D.C-based Police Executive Research Forum, injuries to officers drop by 76 percent when a Taser is used to subdue a suspect in place of other weapons.
Shastany said extensive testing of the weapon and the experience of many law enforcement agencies that use it have allayed many concerns.
“With a Taser, you know the outcome before you use it,’’ he said. “That’s not true when you use another impact weapon.”
But the use of the weapon has generated lawsuits. Last month, the University of Cincinnati agreed to pay $2 million and suspend the use of Tasers by university police as part of a settlement with the family of a student who died after being shocked with a Taser. A coroner’s investigation could not determine the cause of death, but the family and expert witnesses blamed the shock from the Taser.
Critics of the weapons say some officers are too free to use them, in situations that do not call for them. In May 2011, Stoughton Town Meeting member Ed DeFelice spoke out against the proposal to purchase the weapons then, citing incidents elsewhere that had resulted in deaths.
In a recent interview, DeFelice said he still has concerns that Tasers might be used on someone whose only crime was being unruly, and that tragedy could result.
“What if that person has a heart condition, a medical device that could be affected, or is a pregnant woman?” he asked. “You don’t know beforehand how it will affect someone.”
He said he had no problem with officers deploying the weapon during the recent incident in Stoughton. “That was basically a riot, and all bets are off,” he said.
Shastany said as the Taser evolves, he expects that eventually all police departments will issue the weapon.
“If you don’t have them in the future, a judge or a lawyer may ask, ‘Why not?’ A jury might decide under the reasonableness standard that you should have had them. It’s simply a more humane way to subdue a suspect,” he said.
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.