Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Portland police will begin using Tasers within the next two weeks for a 90-day trial period after the City Council's Public Safety Committee unanimously endorsed the proposal Tuesday.
Committee members said the proposed operating procedure for using the electric stun devices includes important safeguards. Police Chief James Craig called the policy ''one of the most robust operating guidelines for Tasers anywhere in the country.''
''This is a great day,'' he said. ''Officers will have a new tool at their disposal.''
The department currently has two of the devices on loan and plans to have 12 in use by the end of the trial period. Craig says he plans to use grant money to purchase the weapons, which cost $12,000 each when equipped with audio and visual recorders.
The committee's vote ultimately hinged on officer safety and the chief's guidance on public safety issues.
Councilor Dan Skolnik, committee chairman, said he believes Tasers are needed because in the hands of a well-trained officer, they are the only tool short of a gun that can incapacitate a suspect immediately. Pepper spray and impact weapons like a baton take longer, he said, and that can lead to injuries.
Skolnik said the policy governing Tasers has adequate safeguards because it requires that use of the weapon be reasonable and necessary to disable a suspect.
The policy during the 90-day trial period requires that only trained officers can use Tasers, that any use of a Taser will be reviewed by supervisors, that the police department will use models that make a record of the use, that they will not be used when a person is merely noncompliant or fleeing, and that rescue workers will be called whenever one is deployed.
Several members of the public spoke during the meeting, most opposed to Tasers.
Lyndsey Thompson-Rowell, of Peaks Island, felt that saying the Tasers will only be used on someone who is ''combative'' was not precise enough, and she worried that it could be used when someone was swearing or shaking their fist. She also said that advising officers about the dangers of multiple discharges on a suspect is not adequate, and that the practice should be prohibited.
Marjorie Fallon, of Pleasant Street, said she felt the money would be better spent on crime prevention.
Dr. Robert McAfee, who for six years chaired the city committee that reviews the police department's handling of citizen complaints, has opposed Tasers because of the potential for some people to die after being shot with one. Nationally, 331 people have died, McAfee said.
But he believes Portland's use policy addresses many of the concerns over Taser use, by requiring training and accountability and requiring medical response when the device is used.
Former state Rep. Gerald Talbot said he supports police having the devices. He said Craig came to Portland to help ensure the safety and security of the community. Tasers are an important alternative to using guns, which automatically become a life-or-death issue, Talbot said.
Amid all the hypothetical situations, Craig said having Tasers could have spared one of his officers from a serious leg injury recently. Officer Robert Pelletier was among several officers who confronted a large suspect as they were investigating a burglary in progress on Sunday. The officers tried to swarm the man, who was wanted on warrants, but he fought them off and escaped. Pelletier's knee was injured in the process, requiring surgery, and he is expected to miss up to a year of work.
Tuesday's meeting brought the end to a power struggle of sorts, with the police chief and city manager contending that department operations were an administrative function and Skolnik insisting it was the committee's prerogative to review plans to test Tasers and ultimately the council's decision on whether police should carry them.
Skolnik and Craig met this week to discuss the proposal and agreed to some modifications.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue asked how the chief would measure success after the trial period ends.
Craig admitted that is impossible to know what would have happened if a Taser had not been used, in terms of whether an officer would have been injured in a confrontation with a suspect. However, he said they will look to see whether Tasers help resolve situations, such as one involving a suicidal person with a knife. Craig said he hopes to be able to show there were fewer injuries as a result of using Tasers and that the weapon was used in a safe way.
Failure to follow the department's policies on Taser use would lead to discipline, he said, which could include termination. But he does not anticipate problems.
''The Portland Police Department is in fact a well-trained police department,'' Craig said.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: