"Down, down, let me down. I need to get down on the floor. I just want it to stop."
The pain was obvious, both from the expressions on the men's faces as well as the words they gritted out through clenched teeth. And to think they actually volunteered for this. Even better, they eventually laughed about the experience, although each admitted they never, ever wanted to go through it again.
Such was the scene one recent Saturday as members of the Tamaqua Police Department went through a TASER certification class.
Four men volunteered to be shot with the TASER device as part of the certification process: full time officers Tom Rodgers and Karl Harig; and part timers Tom Duarte and Matt Houser. Each ended up with two small probes stuck in their bodies. The electricity coursing through their muscles affected their peripheral nervous system, dropping them to the floor, almost instantaneously, one by one.
Even though the TASER uses less than one amp of electrical current, less than that of a standard Christmas tree bulb, the result is enough to incapacitate almost anyone, as the "victims" will be only too glad to tell you.
The Tamaqua Department doesn't require its officers to be TASER certified, but if the officers do want to carry one of the department's two TASERS, they must undergo certification instruction. Part of that process, in Tamaqua, is to actually take a TASER hit. This "helps the officer understand the entire process and experience the effects of the equipment they use," according to Tamaqua Patrolman Matt Bynon, a certified instructor through TASER International.
TASER is an acronym, named for a fictional weapon: Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.
The TASER is considered a non-lethal weapon, designed to override the body's neuromuscular system through controlled electrical impulses, unlike stun guns, which rely solely on the infliction of pain to incapacitate. The Electronic Control Device (ECD) immediately stops any coordinated action by the person being tazed. It becomes physically impossible for a tazed subject to move and it does hurt, a lot, while those electrical charges are passing through your muscles. Fortunately, once the electrical impulses stop, recovery is instantaneous. The ECD is designed to give law enforcement personnel a window of opportunity to temporarily stop someone's dangerous actions through a three to five second charge.
As our Tamaqua subjects can attest, those five seconds feel like forever.
The TASER is shaped somewhat like a handgun. The replaceable cartridges contain compressed nitrogen which deploy two small probes once the trigger is pulled. The probes are attached to the device with insulated, conductive wires. Each TASER operates similarly to a computer, collecting and storing all information relevant to each use. Each cartridge also contains dozens of confetti size markers containing serial numbers, providing for an additional layer of accountability in the event the weapon is ever used.
Tamaqua acquired its TASERs in 2007. Since then, the devices have each been used once. Both times, it was when officers felt their lives, or the lives of the public, were in danger. Officer Bynon noted "the TASER is just another tool in the officer's belt. These classes are designed to familiarize the officers with the proper techniques and use of the device, as well as which types of situations would call for such a response. The most important thing to remember is the safety of the public as well as the safety of the officer."
Although no "use of force" device is risk free, numerous studies have shown the TASER to be generally safe and effective. Over 14,200 law enforcement agencies in 40 countries have been trained to use the device. There have been no reports of an increase in injury rates to suspects or officers. In fact, the vast majority of departments using the device have reported a decrease in such injuries.
Training consisted of class room lessons, practice shots at an appropriate target and an exam in addition to actually being shot with the probes. With the target practice, in a somewhat darkened room, it was easy to see the electrical arcs along the wires after the cartridge had been fired.
Each of our four volunteers were amazed at the effects of the tiny barbs. "It's impossible to describe," offered Officer Rodgers. "You just want it to stop," noted Officer Houser. "I know I would definitely comply with an officer's orders to avoid that again, "stressed Officer Duarte. "Like riding the lightning," suggested Officer Harig. Bynon described the feeling as "being hit in the middle of the back with a baseball bat, over and over again." None of the men suffered any ill effects, save for tender gluteus maximums muscles.
Bynon also instructed the men on the proper way to remove the implanted barbs to reduce the possibility of injury to skin and soft tissue (although they weren't as considerate of their fellow officers as they would be a civilian).
After reflecting on the training and the possible scenarios where a TASER might be used, Officer Harig shared this philosophy, "The Taser is not a substitute for common sense. An officer's brain is still their greatest weapon. I am not taking the TASER on the road this morning. Will I need it? I hope not, but I also have a firearm strapped to my hip. I hope I never really need that either, but it is there. It too is just another tool. People won't get tapered if they do simple things. LISTEN. CALM DOWN. COMPLY WITH LAWFUL ORDERS. TALK CIVILLY. Sure, no one likes to be arrested, but then don't break the law if you can't pay the price. Everyone knows there is a price to pay. It is taught to us all the time. We just don't know the amount of the price tag sometimes."