Panel gives Portland police permission to try using Tasers

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PORTLAND — City police officers will begin carrying Tasers as part of a three-month trial of the device.

The City Council Public Safety Committee reviewed and approved the measure Tuesday evening, and Police Chief James Craig said officers have already started training to use the stun guns. The department will borrow or purchase 12 Tasers for the trial period. The devices cost $12,000 each, and could be paid for with federal stimulus money.

Councilor Dan Skolnik, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he was satisfied with the use policy his committee reviewed. Skolnik met with Craig prior to Tuesday’s meeting, and the two tweaked the proposal to include suggestions from Skolnik regarding use of the weapon.

Skolnik said he supported the trial period because he believes that in the hands of well-trained officers, Tasers are the only thing besides a gun that can incapacitate a suspect immediately. 

The policy says officers may use Tasers on aggressive or combative subjects, but not for the sole purpose of stopping a suspect from fleeing. Any person shot with a Taser must have immediate medical treatment and any event during which a Taser is used requires the officer to provide a use-of-force report. The Tasers Craig plans to order are equipped with video and audio recording, and supervisors will be trained in proper Taser use so they can best review incidents.

The policy also calls for police to have continuous verbal contact with suspects to try and de-escalate situations. Officers can also use the laser light on the Taser as a way to deter aggressive suspects.

Craig said that in his experience with Tasers while working for the Los Angeles Police Department, “nine out of 10 times” when a suspect sees the laser light on their chest, they submit to detention.

The chief also emphasised that the Portland Police Department’s use-of-force policy is one of the strictest he has seen anywhere.

“That would not change with the use of Tasers,” Craig said. Officers found out of compliance with the Taser use policy will be disciplined and could face dismissal, he said.

Several members of the public weighed in on Taser use during the meeting, before the three-member City Council committee unanimously approved the policy. Lyndsey Thompson-Rowell said she thought any Taser policy should have to be approved by the full council. She also questioned how officers will follow some of the rules in the policy, including not stunning people known to have pacemakers or who are pregnant.

“You can’t tell if someone has a pacemaker,” she said. Thompson-Rowell also said she was concerned there is no reference to police not using Tasers on juveniles.

Gerald Talbot, a former state legislator and NAACP president, said he supports police being equipped with stun guns. He said Craig came to the city to make it a safer place, and that he should be allowed to do so.

Craig first proposed adding Tasers for a trial period in May, and submitted a policy to City Manager Joe Gray in June. While Gray initially approved the trial, Skolnik insisted the matter first go before the Public Safety Committee for approval.

Craig said after the meeting Tuesday that when officers are limited in non-lethal weapons, they often end up having to take subjects down physically. He pointed to an incident over the weekend on Grant Street, where officers encountered a “very strong” burglary suspect who was combative and allegedly assaulted an officer. That officer, Robert Pelletier, sustained a leg injury that will sideline him for a year, Craig said. Plus, the suspect escaped. (He was found the next day and arrested.)

If police had been armed with Tasers, Craig said, they could have avoided injury and caught the suspect at the burglary scene.

The Police Department will monitor its Taser use during the three-month trial period, and then report back on its findings.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or