Tasers have made headlines almost everywhere but North Dakota.

But it doesn’t mean they aren’t being used.

A growing number of police departments have stun guns.

Cities aren’t the only ones that have them. Police in smaller towns such as Valley City and Wahpeton have them, too.

“I think most law enforcement agencies are using it, and they’re not cheap,” Morton County Sheriff Dave Shipman said.

The Bismarck police bought Tasers X26 for about $800 each.

As recently as Thursday, Bismarck officers used a stun gun to subdue someone the department said was resisting arrest.

From the beginning of the year until June 7, the Bismarck police displayed stun guns on 17 occasions and used them four times.

Bismarck’s deputy chief, Dan Donlin, recalled one instance where the stun gun was especially helpful:

Officers responded to a situation where an individual had a knife. A knife is classified as a dangerous weapon, and in situations like that, deadly force can be justified.

“The officers can’t just approach someone with a knife because obviously they can be stabbed or cut, seriously hurt or injured or killed,” Donlin said. “The typical response for an officer there is a firearm.”

In this case, though, one officer used his stun gun to disarm the subject, he said.

Stun guns aren’t always effective. Out of 14 uses in 2008, the gun didn’t work three times because it missed the target. Only one of the probes hit, and the clothing was too thick.

Regardless, police say the stun guns are useful tools.

“They can resolve these situations that otherwise may escalate into the officer otherwise having to use either their baton or possibly a firearm on violent people who are resisting,” Donlin said. “The Taser gives them that middle-of-the-road option.”

In 2009, there were no uses or displays of pepper spray or batons.

People can feel the effects of pepper spray for 40 to 45 minutes after contact, said Deputy Mark Ahlgren of the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department. On the other hand, he said, once the stun gun goes through its five-second cycle, people are usually back to normal within seconds.

“We’ve seen through history highly motivated people, people that are willing to fight with law enforcement, are able to fight through pepper spray, where(as) the Taser incapacitates them, and they’re not able to fight through it,” Ahlgren said.

Inhalation is another concern with pepper spray. Police officers have to be cognizant of ventilation systems in locations such as schools and hospitals when using them.

Ultimately, more often than not, using the stun gun isn’t necessary.

“Most people — probably 99 percent of them — when they see a red dot on their chest, they comply,” Shipman said.

Since Bismarck purchased stun guns in July 2007, they have been displayed 132 times and used 42 times. In other words, for every three times an officer displays a stun gun, it is used once.

However, there are concerns associated with stun guns.

Since June 2001, Amnesty International, a human rights organization, tracked more than 400 instances in which people died after being stunned, spokeswoman Wende Gozan said.

Amnesty International has called for a suspension on the use of the stun guns until further research has been conducted.

“Medical studies so far on the effects of Tasers have either been limited in scope or unduly influenced by the weapons’ primary manufacturer,” its website said.

None of the deaths tracked by the organization occurred in North Dakota. Of surrounding states, only Minnesota makes the list.

Five deaths occurred there; the latest deaths, two of them, occurred in 2008.

Mark Backlund, 29, was stunned three times in January 2008. He went into cardiac arrest at the scene, and his death was attributed to acute cocaine and other drug abuse.

In April 2008, 21-year-old Joe Kubat became unresponsive at the scene and was declared dead in the ambulance.

“There always seem to be extenuating circumstances individual to that person,” Donlin said. “I don’t think that anyone can just say the Taser caused the death because we’re usually talking about hyperactivity. Many times there are high levels of drugs involved, illicit drugs, most often cocaine.”

Critics of the stun guns say the weapons are being used inappropriately.

“Tasers have become a weapon of first resort, not last,” Gozan said. “They were introduced as a nonlethal equivalent to firearms, but too often Tasers are used when guns wouldn’t be.”

In 90 percent of the deaths tracked, she said, the subject was unarmed.

Many police departments have a policy that states how much force to use in different circumstances.

The Bismarck Police Department’s guidelines for stun gun use recommend avoiding use on pregnant women, juveniles, older individuals and those with serious injuries or disabilities. These are guidelines, however, not stringent rules.

Donlin said officers are trained to look at the “totality of the circumstances,” which can include the relative size of the officer and subject.

Deputy Chief Paul Leingang of the Mandan Police Department said its force scale goes from the prescence of an officer to a verbal command to soft, empty hand control to a stun gun, a chemical weapon or hard contact, and then to deadly force.

“We think that Tasers are very helpful in that it reduces the number of times that an officer has to go hands-on, physical contact with an individual, which means there’s less of a chance of an injury to officer as well to a suspect,” Leingang said.

The Bismarck Police Department has received one excessive use of force complaint involving a stun gun.

Most aspects of the complaint from August 2009 were found to be false, said Lt. Randy Ziegler, who handles internal affairs investigations.

The situation involved officers enforcing an arrest warrant when the subject tried to flee.

The person involved said the officers stunned him more than once, but records downloaded from the stun guns checked out by the officers reported that only one of them had been used once, and for five seconds.

The stun gun tracks the date, time and interval it was used.

“There is no way to manipulate the data so if there ever is an excessive use of force complaint, we can upload the data from the Tasers,” Ziegler said.

The complaint said he was “beaten and almost killed” and that he was going into a “seizure-like state.”

Ziegler said that interviews with the ambulance team and an EMT-trained officer that were on scene indicate they thought he was faking the seizure.

The suspect was taken to the hospital, where a physician reported that he had two small punctures from the stun gun probes and was not seriously injured.

None of the other departments reported complaints logged in 2009 due to inappropriate stun gun use.

“The sheer volume of people that they’re dealing with in the larger states is going to obviously increase the potential for complaints,” Leingang said. “There probably isn’t as many use-of-force instances involving law enforcement in North Dakota compared to other states.”

(Reach reporter Emily Coleman at 250-8256 or emily.coleman@bismarcktribune.com.)

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