Officers armed with Tasers

BURBANK — Despite a visit by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and raucous demonstrations by local teachers, last week was quiet in Burbank — at least according to the Police Department.

Officials in the city’s law enforcement unit reported that since Taser guns debuted Sept. 1, not one officer has been forced to press the nonlethal weapon into action.

“Frankly it’s surprising,” Sgt. Thor Merich said. “We contacted 50 police departments in California and the United States to find out the good, the bad and what we can expect. At the beginning of Taser use, they said we can expect to see a lot of incidents. I wouldn’t have expected not one use.”

The idea for department-wide implementation of the weapons — which fire electrified barbs, immobilizing people with what can be painful shocks, was first floated a year ago, officials said.

“It was a safety issue,” Lt. Eric Rosoff said. “The stats bear out that there is less injury to officers and less injury to citizens. When people become aware [of the Tasers], they seem to simmer down a little bit. The whole idea is that we have to use less force.”

There are now 140 Tasers in use at a cost of $169,000 to the city, Merich said. The yellow weapons are affixed to the belts of all patrol officers, and half of all detectives in the city now carry them. The goal is to outfit all 165 officers in the department with Tasers.

Though they have not been used yet, the Tasers might first be fired in place of pepper spray or in cases where an officer feels he is being threatened, Rosoff said.

“It’s a compliance tool,” he said. “If it looks like someone’s going to hurt me or an officer, I have the availability if it presents itself. It’s the best tool we can use to go out and do what we do, which is protect the community.”

But the nonlethal weapon has drawn some criticism because of its effects.

In 2005, the New England Journal of Medicine found that a shock from a Taser stun gun nearly killed a Chicago teenager after he suffered a heart problem.

Two doctors at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago wrote to the journal saying the incident appeared to be the first medically documented case of ventricular fibrillation caused by a Taser gun.

Taser International, an Arizona-based company that supplied the weapons, maintained that its arsenal is safe and can be “more effective” than lethal guns in certain circumstances.

“Taser technology protects life, and the use of Taser devices dramatically reduces injury rates for law enforcement officers and suspects,” the company said in a statement.

That rationale is part of why Burbank Councilman Gary Bric supports the implementation of Tasers.

“We have an awful lot of officers who get injured on the job,” he said.

“If you have to taze [suspects] as a last resort to eliminate an injury, well, it’s all about the safety of our police officers. Unfortunately, you’ve got people so strung out on drugs they’re like Hercules. It takes 20 police officers to take them down sometimes. I support the Tasers.”

And so do the officers who now patrol the streets with something more powerful than pepper spray but less lethal than a traditional firearm.

Officers experienced just how powerful the Tasers were during a training session in August in which each was shot with a jolt to show exactly what suspects might be in for.

“It’s very, very immobilizing,” Rosoff said. “I wouldn’t actually call it painful, but it is without a doubt immunizing. I’ve been here for 27 years, and this is a tool that will help me make it to my 28th year.”

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