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Topsham Police officers begin carrying Taser stun-guns

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Topsham Police officers begin carrying Taser stun-guns

TOPSHAM – Following the completion of training last week, the Topsham Police Department has joined a growing number of law enforcement agencies that use Taser stun guns.

Officers began carrying the units last weekend, according to Lt. Christopher Lewis, who is a certified Taser instructor and ran the training exercises.

Police acquired the guns through a federal grant administered by the state, Lewis said. The Topsham Board of Selectmen accepted the funding in August.

The department received about $4,200 through the grant, which is geared toward allowing law enforcement agencies to purchase equipment they would not otherwise be able to afford.

“(The Tasers) are expensive, the training is expensive for it as well,” Lewis said, explaining that the department obtained three Tasers plus the training cartridges it needs for practice.

If the funding is available in the future, Lewis said, he would like his department to have more units.

Each officer went through about six hours of training, as well as two or three practical exercises such as unloading and reloading a new cartridge and aiming the Taser.

“The whole practicality portion of the training itself is to make sure the officers are familiar with the safety protocols with the Taser," Lewis said. "What to expect when you do fire the Taser, how to aim the unit, how to do basic maintenance and checks on the unit itself … (and) how to replace a battery if necessary.”

A written test wraps up the training.

The department has established a set of policies and procedures for Taser usage, giving officers step-by-step instructions.

“The Taser in and of itself is a great tool,” Lewis said. “You just have to have guidelines for the officers so that they know exactly what’s in store for them and what they need to do to not only protect themselves for liability, but the town and the department as well.”

Officers will undergo annual training, too, to stay aware of changes in Taser or policies and procedures.

Officers last week could volunteer to be Tasered. “A lot of it is just so that you have first-hand knowledge of what is going to occur when you deploy the Taser,” Lewis said. “The other part of it is to show you that the technology is safe, that you can walk away from it afterwards.”

An officer, called into court to testify about deploying the unit, can also attest to having been Tasered and rely on video that proves it.

While some agencies can use alligator clips to send out the Taser’s electrical charge, Lewis said those weren’t available for Topsham’s officers, and they took the full brunt from a 15-foot, normal cartridge, enduring the normal five seconds of the charge.

When a Taser is deployed, two dart-like probes shoot out of the gun attached to thin copper wires connected to the Taser cartridge. The probes are propelled by nitrogen gas.

The bottom probe travels at an 8 degree angle from the top. The probes, or electrodes, enter clothing and a layer of skin, and they have a small barb to prevent them from falling out after hitting their target. A standard probe is about a third of an inch long.

The electrical current emitted from the Taser and running between the two probes creates neuromuscular incapacitation, interrupting the brain’s ability to control the body’s muscles and stopping aggressive subjects from harming themselves or others.

“You’re limiting exposure of the officer from having to get hurt themselves, or maybe being exposed to some blood-borne pathogen or something like that by getting into a fist fight with the subject,” Lewis said. “It gives them a little bit of distance to work from, especially with an aggressive subject.”

A Taser unit carries one cartridge, but once the probes have been deployed the charge can go through multiple cycles as long as the wires and probes are still connected to the target. More than one cycle might be required if the subject continues to be combative. A safety can be activated to end a cycle before its five seconds are up.

“The best-case scenario is that you have a backup officer with you, you deploy the Taser, the subject goes on the ground, and the officer's actually grabbing his arms and trying to get that person physically under control,” Lewis said. “… It’s not utilized to inflict pain, it’s there to gain control over a combative subject.”

Once a subject has been Tased, the person will be transported to an emergency room to be examined and have the probes removed.

Cases have occasionally been reported of Taser use resulting in injury and even death.

“Taser has medical documentation, and from Taser International there has not been any type of medical conclusive evidence to show that the Taser would cause any type of heart arrythmia or cause any type of interruption of the heart, even if someone has a pacemaker,” Lewis said. “… If there’s something going to occur, there’s something else medically occurring beyond just utilizing the Taser.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.