Taser Prevalence, Concerns, Grow in the Flathead

By Beacon Staff

A long-running and often heated national debate over the use of Tasers by law enforcement agencies has recently made its way to Kalispell, propelled by an excessive force lawsuit and a separate incident involving a 15-year-old boy who was subdued with the electroshock weapon.

Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset has defended the use of the Taser in both situations, as well as in every other instance when it has been deployed during an arrest. Since 2005, Kalispell police have used the Taser a total of 69 times, which constitutes less than 1 percent of all arrests made by the department. Last year, of the 1,949 total arrests, Tasers were used 21 times.

“That tells me that my people are using other skills than the Taser,” Nasset said. “They’re using verbal skills to make an arrest.”

Across the nation and in Montana, the Taser has become a standard tool for law enforcement agencies. Officials believe it’s the most efficient available means of subduing unruly or violent arrestees. Trademarked by TASER International Inc., the weapon is offered in citizen models and more powerful models for law enforcement.

Proponents say it is an effective, non-lethal enforcement device that increases safety for both officers and arrestees, though it still has its share of critics who claim that it’s easy to abuse and, in some cases, dispute its non-lethal designation.

Nasset said electroshock is less painful than pepper spray and its effects don’t linger for as long afterward. It also preempts physical altercations in many cases, he said, or it gives officers a necessary upper hand if a fight does occur.

“I’ve been in those knock-down, drag-out fights,” Nasset said. “And when you have a gun by your side, you don’t want to lose that fight because it could become a weapon that’s used against you.”

Tasers began gaining popularity at law enforcement agencies in Montana around 2002, the year Kalispell adopted them. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Department received its first 18 Tasers through a grant three years ago and has since increased its total number to 40. They are carried by all deputies on duty, as is the case with Kalispell’s police officers.

Local law enforcement agencies, like most around the country, use the X26 Taser model, which deploys two dart-like probes that carry electric currents through wires connected to the handheld unit. It can shoot up to 21 feet. After the probes are deployed, the X26 can still be used as a contact stun gun, though it loses its ability to shoot over a distance.

Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said justice assistance grants have helped his department purchase the weapons, which he said cost $875 apiece. Tasers are more effective than pepper spray, Meehan said, when a person is high on drugs, intoxicated or very aggressive.

“With the Taser, if you get a good shot, they’re going down,” Meehan said. “It’s a wonderful tool that’s non-lethal.”

Kalispell’s Incidents

On Feb. 27 outside of a basketball game at Flathead High School, a 15-year-old Glacier High School freshman was shocked once with a Taser’s probes and then again with a contact stun by a Kalispell police officer.

According to Nasset, the boy was being “verbally abusive” to officer Melissa Smith in the school’s parking lot, prompting Flathead High School Principal Peter Fusaro to approach the situation. Fusaro noticed a can of chewing tobacco and reached toward the boy, apparently for the tobacco, Nasset said. The student slapped Fusaro’s hand away then did the same to Smith when she reached, Nasset said.

He then reportedly took off running with Smith still holding on to him, Nasset said. It was then that officer Garrett Smith – Melissa’s husband – deployed the Taser’s probes into the boy’s chest and abdomen area. After the boy allegedly refused to put his arms behind him while on the ground, he was shocked again with the contact stun.

The student’s actions, Nasset contends, warranted the Taser, though he wouldn’t characterize his actions as “aggressively punching and fighting them.” Nasset said the boy is 6 feet 3 inches tall and 180 pounds, considerably larger than the female Smith.

“(The Taser) was necessary for them to take control of the situation,” Nasset said. “(The boy) had been given multiple opportunities to diffuse the situation that night.”

Nasset said he has since had “very good dialogue” with the student’s dad, who initially indicated litigation was a possibility. Nasset believes the situation would be a non-issue in the public’s eye if he was an adult: “I’m absolutely confident that this would get no press at all.” But his age, Nasset said, “puts a stigma on this that you wouldn’t see in any other situation.”

Also, a complaint filed recently in U.S. District Court in Missoula by Kalispell attorney Scott Hilderman, on behalf of Timothy Perry, alleges that officers Nathan A. Vannoy and Steve Hoover beat Perry with batons after shocking him with the Taser twice. The incident occurred in January of 2006. In what he describes as a case that’s “quite a bit different than” the boy’s, Nasset said the claims of excessive force and assault are “absolutely not true.” And the Taser’s use was warranted, he added.

That complaint is the second filed against officers Vannoy and Hoover for excessive force. Though Nasset couldn’t comment further because of pending litigation, he said he is confident his officers will be absolved.

“With both of those cases, I look forward to it going to court and seeing the facts,” Nasset said.

Safety and Liability

Public interest in Tasers has mushroomed in recent years, largely due to a few well-publicized incidents, including one popularized on YouTube involving a University of Florida student yelling at a police officer, “Don’t Tase me, bro.” Also, in a high-profile case in Canada in 2007, a non-English speaking Polish man died minutes after being shocked with a Taser at the Vancouver International Airport.

The human rights group Amnesty International has long argued that Tasers contribute to or cause deaths in some cases. Law officials, however, generally dispute the validity of those claims, though Meehan acknowledges the dangers of shocking people with bad hearts.

In a widely recognized 2007 study, Dr. William Bozeman of Wake Forest University concluded Tasers are usually a safe device, rarely resulting in any injuries more severe than scrapes or bruises. But he also noted that they have the potential to be lethal.

While Meehan said “you’re always subject to some pretty heavy criticism” with Tasers, he believes the weapon actually cuts down on excessive force lawsuits because it offers a better option than hand-to-hand combat or firearms.

Columbia Falls Police Chief David Perry, whose department averages six Taser deployments per year, said the number of fights between officers and arrestees has declined precipitously since the department adopted Tasers. This has subsequently cut down on workers compensation claims.

Each time the X26 Taser is deployed, it’s recorded on an internal computer, so officials are able to keep track of exactly when and how many times it’s used. This information is used in internal department investigations, Nasset said, like the ones conducted following both the incident with the student and with Perry. Officers were cleared of wrongdoing each time, Nasset said.

“Officers make split-second decisions that are essentially reviewed for months,” he said.

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