Detroit police are moving ahead with a plan to buy electronic stun guns, giving officers a less-lethal option that other departments have used for years to deal with criminal suspects.
The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners on Thursday approved a policy regulating “electronic control weapons” the formal name of the devices, which often are called by the trademarked name Taser.
“This directive is very significant for the Detroit Police Department and also for the citizens of the City of Detroit,” said commission chairman Willie Bell. “I think we are really catching up with the times on technology that’s available. I think this is long overdue.”
The approval comes after more than a decade of consideration. The board first saw a demonstration of the devices in 2003, and many community activists opposed them, fearing abuse.
“The abuse, the multi-Tasering, that’s police brutality,” said current commissioner Reggie Crawford, a onetime critic who changed his mind over time. “I believe this is something that will not only protect the officer from injury, but also protect the individual suspect they are trying to take into custody.”
Crawford served 30 years on the Detroit force before being elected to the commission, a civil oversight board. He noted that more than 18,000 police agencies across the country now use some type of stun gun as a less-lethal means of subduing unruly suspects.
He stressed that proper training is essential, and officers must be accountable for the way they use the devices.
The department hosted a forum in September to review the devices and hear concerns from a variety of community groups, Bell said.
“It’s a tool that’s going to help officers,” he said.
The devices resemble handguns and typically use compressed air to fire a pair of metal probes at the suspect. The probes are wired to a battery pack that delivers a high-voltage shock, causing the suspect to collapse to the ground.
It’s unclear when officers might begin carrying them. The city must go through a purchase process and then officers must undergo training on the devices before they can carry them.
The policy approved 8-0 by the board allows officers to use the devices to defend themselves or gain compliance from combative or violent people. They are also approved for use on animals that appear to threaten an officer’s safety.
The policy calls for officers to avoid shooting the probes into sensitive areas of person’s body, including the head, face, neck, groin or breast. The policy also calls for the department to use devices that discharge small pieces of confetti bearing the serial number when the trigger is pulled.
That’s considered an accountability measure, because the serial numbers can be traced back to the officer to whom the device was assigned. Some devices are equipped with cameras, but Crawford said those would be redundant because all Detroit police officers will be equipped with body cameras this year before the stun guns are deployed.
Michigan passed a law in 2002 allowing police to use the devices, and many departments have used them for years. The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office was among the first agencies in the state to deploy them, beginning in June 2003.
Undersheriff Michael McCabe said deputies have used them 898 times since then, a little more than once a week. The department completes a report every time one is used, and deputies are retrained on them on a regular basis, McCabe said.
“It’s resulted in fewer injuries to deputies and to suspects,” McCabe said.
No one has died in a Taser incident. The department was once sued over the use of the devices, but the suit was dismissed, McCabe said.
“It has a huge psychological effect when they are in a situation where the officer has a Taser,” McCabe said. “Once they see the Taser, usually the suspect will comply.”