December 12, 2012

Tasers are proven non-lethal tool, but some Maine police forgo them

The non-lethal weapons – including a long-range shotgun described as an 'incredible resource' – catch on slowly in Maine, where investment in equipment and training can be burdensome.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – The nation's police departments have had access to the Taser electroshock weapon for 15 years or so, but many Maine forces still don't use the non-lethal, pistol-style devices.

click image to enlarge

Thursday, Feb.2, 2012. Jay Kehoe demonstrates a new non-lethal weapon called a Taser X-12 at the Maine Chiefs of Police Association winter meeting and trade show in South Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Thursday, Feb.2, 2012. A Taser X-12 at bottom among conventional shotguns above on display as the Maine Chiefs of Police Association winter meeting and trade show in South Portland.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

And only a handful of local agencies have the unusual shotgun, with its bright-yellow stock, that last February caught the eye of Capt. Daniel Garbarini of the Rumford Police Department.

The weapon, on display at the Maine Chiefs of Police Association meeting and trade show, wasn't a typical 12-gauge shotgun. Made by Taser International, the model X12 is modified to shoot an electrode-barbed projectile up to 100 feet and incapacitate someone with a nerve-numbing charge. The X12 delivers its charge for 20 seconds and can reach nearly three times farther than a standard, pistol-style Taser.

The lingering discharge and greater distance can help keep an officer safe and provide an alternative to using a traditional gun during a dangerous encounter. The Taser X12 is considered especially useful when confronting armed people who are suicidal or having a psychotic crisis.

"We have departments all over the country buying it," said Jay Kehoe, regional sales director for Witmer Public Safety Group, which had set up a display at the show.

Only a few Maine police departments - including Sanford, Brunswick and the Knox County Sheriff's Office - have so far bought the Taser X12, which has been on the market for roughly three years. Rumford, like most Maine agencies, doesn't have the money or manpower to buy the Taser X12 and train to use it correctly, Garbarini noted.

During a crisis confrontation, an officer carrying a Taser X12 must be accompanied by another officer armed with a standard weapon who is prepared to use it, if necessary. That's because the Taser sometimes is ineffective in subduing a suspect, so backup force is needed.

"It certainly is an incredible resource, but we're not shopping specifically for that," Garbarini said.

Rumford does have four pistol-style Tasers for its eight patrol officers. They can disable a person up to 20 feet away.

But many Maine departments still lack the basic Taser, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. They don't see the need in their rural communities, he said, or can't afford the investment in equipment and ongoing training.

Even Maine's sixth-largest city - Biddeford - didn't have pistol-style Tasers until last fall. Using a $40,000 federal grant and seized money from drug cases, police there bought 41 Tasers and trained each officer. 

A few chiefs think the shotgun version is worth the investment. Tom Connolly Jr., chief of the Sanford department, bought three X12 shotguns last year at a cost of $700 each. An increasing number of confrontations between police and people who are suicidal or mentally ill led to the decision, Connolly said. The purchase will pay for itself, he said, if it saves one life.

In other states and countries, police also are beginning to deploy military-type weapons that use light and sound to disable people from a distance, said Kehoe, the Taser X12 salesman. One example is the so-called dazzler, which typically uses a laser beam to temporarily blind suspects. Another is long-range acoustic devices that can broadcast painful sound over long distances.

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