If avoiding uncontrollable muscle contractions and temporary incapacitation is on your list of goals, you probably want to avoid tangling with newly armed Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Deputies.
In an effort to reduce injuries to deputies and civilians, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. recently spent $310,000 on 270 new Taser Guns. Sheriff Training Manager Lt. Chuck Gerhart said the weapons began arriving in October 2004 and the last batch was delivered by December 2004. Gerhart said the Tasers are being implemented as an alternative to more harmful weapons or deadly force that deputies can use to restrain combative or dangerous subjects.
“If we can do something to minimize some of the injuries that [civilians] sustain because we have to use a baton, or in the worse case scenario we have to draw our firearm, I’m willing to reduce injuries to people in this manner,” Gerhart said. “We’re trying to find an alternative that will reduce injuries all the way around.”
Gerhart said the Sheriff’s Dept. raised the $310,000 it cost to purchase the Tasers through Sheriff’s Council fundraising efforts. He said the money raised will also be used to fund training for deputies in the use of the weapons.
All deputies that are issued a Taser must first go through a mandatory training period that will begin this February, Gerhart said. Of the 270 Tasers purchased by the Sheriff’s Dept., Gerhart said, 250 will be issued to patrol personnel and 20 will remain at the bureau for training purposes.
Gerhart said the earliest deployment of the weapons is expected to occur in mid-February, immediately following the end of the first training session.
“It is our intention to issue all patrol officers a Taser,” he said.
Of the two types of Taser guns manufactured by TASER, International, Gerhart said the Sheriff’s Dept. chose the X26 model, developed in 2003. The X26 is less powerful than the more popular M26, but he said the M26 is closer in size to a handgun, and could cause confusion if a deputy needed to quickly draw one weapon or the other.
“With its smaller size, [the X26] would make it less likely that people would deploy the Taser instead of a handgun,” Gerhart said. “We felt it was a little better product for our department to use.”
Each of the Tasers, Gerhart said, is colored bright yellow and marked with its own serial number.
Gerhart said he volunteered to be shot with one of the Tasers in order to experience the effects it has on a person. With a burst of compressed nitrogen, Tasers fire two probes that make contact with a target’s skin or clothing. The ensuing jolt of electricity stuns and immobilizes the subject, dropping him to the ground.
“It’s uncomfortable,” Gerhart said. “Once the weapon stopped discharging, I was able to do anything that I was able to do before I was struck with the probes.”
Although the Taser is not considered a lethal weapon, human rights organization Amnesty International has cited Tasers as the cause of at least 70 deaths.
“I have not personally read any autopsy reports that lend as the primary causal factor as a Taser being responsible,” Gerhart said. “I have read a number of reports that indicate a Taser could have been a contributing factor, but there have also been reports that indicate that a Taser has saved a significant number of lives.”
Gerhart said the Sheriff’s Dept. did a study on both the positive and negative results of Taser use.
“If I did not feel that the weapon was safe to be used under circumstances where other options would result where greater force could be used, I would not endorse the product,” he said.
Isla Vista Foot Patrol Lt. Sol Linver said a Taser could be used in a number of situations, but would most often be used in place of a baton.
“There is a use-of-force continuum that the deputies follow,” Linver said. “There’s a lot of variables involved.”
In Isla Vista, the use of a Taser on an intoxicated target presents new concerns for officers, Gerhart said.
“If we had somebody over near a bluff area, we obviously would not want to deploy the weapon, to keep the person from falling over the edge,” Gerhart said. “In most situations, the deputies should take the time to formulate a plan.”
Associated Students External Vice President of Local Affairs Jared Renfro said he does not see the Taser program as a viable means of improving the situation in I.V.
“I don’t see this making Isla Vista any safer,” he said. “I don’t see it as improving the relationship between the students and the IVFP.”
Although UCPD officers cycle through the IVFP, UCSB’s acting head of the UC Police Dept. Bill Bean said UCPD officers will not be trained in Taser use or issued one of the weapons.
“Our police officers are not authorized to use the Tasers, they are not trained in the use, they are not issued Tasers and they won’t be using them,” Bean said. “I am certainly a proponent of doing so, but we haven’t yet approached that issue.”