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They shocked the sheriff

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley shakes as he
Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley shakes as he's jolted with 50,000 volts from the department's new non-lethal weapon, a Taser. It delivers that jolt at only 0.162 amps, so it's intended to not injure the heart or a pacemaker. Hawley and other officers received the treatment they may some day use so they would understand what the subject is experiencing. The officers holding Hawley are not identified.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley contorted and convulsed over the department's newest gadget Monday morning. Well, that's one way to show enthusiasm.

The occasion was the first of three training sessions for the department's four new Advanced Tasers, less-than-lethal defensive weapons being used by police and sheriff's departments across the nation.

Like pepper spray or bean-bag rounds, Tasers -- which stun criminal suspects into submission with an electrical charge -- are designed to stop violent, resisting or intoxicated persons without causing injury.

They certainly seem to work, based on what the sheriff and other Taser trainees had to go through this week. Hawley and a dozen or so deputies took turns getting zapped by a Taser during the training session, to experience the effect. Getting zapped is a required portion of the training.

The officers took tens of thousands of volts of electricty like professionals -- with a lot of howling and screaming, as well as some swearing.

"It's like I stuck my whole body into a light plug that was 220," Hawley said. "It was wave after wave after wave of boom, boom, boom."

Hawley and the deputies got only about two seconds of Taser volts from a pair of darts used to deliver the shock. Criminals get much more shocking treatment, taking between five and 10 seconds of electricity, depending on how violent they are.

Unlike stun guns that require the user to make physical contact, the Taser "guns" shoot out a pair of barbed darts attached to insulated wire. The lightweight darts stick into a person's skin and deliver up to two five-second bursts of 50,000 volts of electricity.

Detective Ed Wallace, defensive tactics specialist for the sheriff's office, said Tasers are safe for both user and target. In four years of use, only one death resulted from the use of a Taser in the United States. In that case, the subject fell the wrong way off a building.

At only 0.162 amps, the Taser cannot damage the human body, cause a heart attack or damage a pacemaker. Though they deliver a wallop, they run on AA batteries.

Wallace is an old pro at braving the Taser, having been shocked by them four times in the past. He said the electricity actually cauterizes the tiny wounds where the darts stick into the body, leaving behind small, red pucker marks.

For all the assurances of safety, the Taser is a powerful weapon. Wallace said a Taser could probably stop a charging bull elephant -- at least momentarily. The purpose of the Taser is to incapacitate a person -- or animal -- long enough for a deputy to gain control of a violent situation. That means a deputy armed with a Taser can use the weapon to avoid wrestling, hitting or shooting an out-of-control individual. That translates into fewer injuries and deaths among both criminal suspects and law enforcement officers.

Wallace said the Tukwilla police department was the first law enforcement agency in the state to purchase Tasers. Wallace said that department saw police-involved assaults drop to near zero.

According to national Taser statistics, the weapons are most often used on drunks and people in the midst of serious mental health crises. While traditional pain-compliance measures used by law enforcement -- holds, pepper spray, baton whacking -- can be overcome by alcohol and drugs, no one is immune to 50,000 volts of electricity.

The device can also be handy, Wallace said, when dealing with suicidal subjects.

Deputies don't necessarily have to shoot people with a Taser to get them to calm down. Wallace said deputies can just pull the trigger and scare them with an "arc display" of electricity.

"When I arc displayed to a guy in back of (deputy) Jeff's car, he complied right away," Wallace said.

The Tasers do have their limitations. They are laser-sited, but Wallace said it's just about impossible to hit a moving target with the weapon. The darts have a 21-foot range, but don't work well if the suspect is just a few feet away.

The Tasers can also be used as "touch" stun guns.

As a tool, Tasers are pricey. Tasers run about $400 and each "cartridge," which can only be used once, costs $21. The cartridges are loaded with non-flammable compressed nitrogen that propel the darts at 180 feet per second.

Taser guns record the time and dates of each firing, which can be downloaded into a computer, to protect law enforcement from allegations of misuse. Hawley said his deputies will have to write out an incident report for each time they discharge a Taser.

Hawley explained that the Island County jail and each precinct will get one of the new Tasers. He told deputies that more units will be phased in over time, probably as each patrol car is replaced. He said the deputies can also use their uniform allowances to buy them, if they wish.

So far, a Taser has only been used once by deputies in Island County. Wallace, who's carried one for six months, tasered a suspect who was running away. It worked.

"Imagine if you got the full five seconds when you didn't expect it. Your whole world lights up..." Wallace said. "The suspect initially thought he'd been shot (with a real gun)."

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