Police use of Tasers on rise

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers last year reached for Tasers about seven times as often as they did pepper spray.

Officers used the stun guns about 140 times in 2007, according to a police department study. They used pepper spray about 20 times.

The findings mark the third year in a row that Taser use increased at about the same pace as pepper spray use decreased.

The devices have drawn scrutiny because officers used them in three recent Charlotte-area cases that left suspects injured or dead.

Police have relied on pepper spray since the 1970s to end potentially dangerous conflicts quickly. But area officers are turning to Tasers, departments say, mainly due to the spray's limitations.

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department committee, headed by Deputy Chief Ken Miller, met this week to begin investigating the Taser increase. He said the committee would analyze written accounts of each incident to determine why officers chose Tasers instead of other methods, including pepper spray.

“Until we look at each individual case and dig into the narratives to see why Tasers were used, we are not going to be able to tell,” he said.

The stun guns use compressed nitrogen to shoot two electrically charged probes into a subject, releasing about 50,000 volts for up to five seconds. The person is usually immobilized immediately.

Law enforcement officials say that, when used properly, Tasers are safe and effective for ending a dangerous confrontation.

Nationally, more than 100 people have died after being stunned with Tasers.

Locally, Tasers have been involved in three controversial cases:

Last week, Michael Douglas Connor, 25, spent four days in the hospital after being shocked during his arrest by Hickory police.

Anthony Dewayne Davidson, 29, of Statesville, died last month after Statesville police shocked him multiple times with Taser guns while he was handcuffed.

In March, 17-year-old Darryl Wayne Turner died after Charlotte-Mecklenburg police used a Taser on him at a Food Lion store in Charlotte.

The officer involved in Turner's case was cleared of criminal charges but was suspended for five days for violating the department's policy. He shocked Turner for 37 seconds, which an autopsy cited as a factor in his death. Police here are trained to deliver shocks in five-second bursts.

Miller said Charlotte's most common use of force is hands-on, physical confrontation. The department's study released earlier this month reported more than 400 such cases.

Confrontations grow more dangerous the longer they last. Officers often need a weapon that can end conflict quickly.

Pepper spray is typically delivered through a handheld canister. For maximum effectiveness, officers spray suspects in the eyes from about three feet away.

The spray usually induces an almost immediate burning sensation and an uncontrollable swelling of the eyes. When inhaled, it causes breathing passages to swell.

Officers say the spray is sometimes difficult to use and can actually get on the officer. It also takes a long time for the symptoms to wear off.

“It would be great if they would comply and stand still and look at you as you sprayed them, but that's not the way it usually goes down,” said Gaston County police Capt. Jay Human.

Pepper spray sometimes kills

There are times when pepper spray is more effective than Tasers. For example, in the winter, suspects often wear heavy coats, which can lesson the weapon's shock.

Pepper spray is not entirely safe. People have died from its use, though most experts say such deaths occur when the effects of pepper spray are exacerbated by other factors.

Experts say that exposure to the spray, when combined with pre-existing respiratory difficulties and asthma, can lead to death. One ACLU California study conducted in the mid-'90s found that one person died for every 600 times police used the spray. But researchers determined that pepper spray alone was responsible for only a small portion of those deaths.

Human said pepper spray use by Gaston County police has dropped drastically since the department made Tasers available to all patrol officers. In the past five years, use of pepper spray went down from 11 times in 2004 to none so far this year. Meanwhile, Taser use jumped from 13 times in 2004 to 27 times so far this year.

“Pepper still has its uses, but, in a lot of ways, Tasers are just better,” he said.

Matthews Police Department has experienced a similar trend. Since Tasers were introduced to the department in 2005, officers have used them nine times and pepper spray not at all.

Matthews Sgt. David Harrington said it only makes sense that officers are turning more to Tasers.

“Every time I used pepper spray, I still had to fight the person,” Harrington said. “That is not the case with Tasers.”

Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle said the local trend follows one occurring across the country. Tuttle provided studies showing pepper spray use down by 38 percent in Columbus, Ohio, and 100 percent down in Concord, Calif.

“What we have found is that when Tasers are in use in large numbers, we see a reduction in all of the other forms of traditional force,” he said. “That includes K-9 bites, bean bags, physical confrontations and pepper spray.”