TRAVERSE CITY -- Grand Traverse sheriff's deputies could soon start packing 50,000 volts.
The sheriff's department asked the county board for approval to purchase 61 Taser stun guns and equipment at a cost of $58,000. Sergeants already pack Tasers, but Sheriff Tom Bensley wants all patrol and correction officers to carry them, too.
"It's for officer safety, even the bad guys' safety," Bensley said. "Bottom line, when we have them deployed, they prevent injuries."
Tasers shoot two metallic darts tipped with barbs attached to wires that carry 50,000 volts, capable of jumping through several layers of clothes. The darts effectively deliver 1,200 volts of electricity for about five seconds into a subject, producing excruciating pain and temporary muscle paralysis.
County Commissioner Michael Stepka, a criminal defense attorney, supports the purchase.
"It's a necessary and important safety tool for an officer, but of course there needs to be proper training," Stepka said. "I understand there's been a few cases of misuse or a person had an adverse reaction, but overall the effects are temporary and non-lethal."
Amnesty International USA reports over 351 deaths from police use of Tasers since June 2001. Amnesty calls for further study of Taser effects on people with underlying medical conditions, children and the elderly.
A recent decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may set new guidelines for Taser use. The court ruled that desire by police to resolve quickly a "potentially dangerous situation" does not justify the use of force that may cause serious injury.
"The objective facts must indicate that the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or a member of the public," the court wrote.
Bensley said he hasn't seen the opinion, but said the sheriff's department already requires Taser use be limited to a threat of immediate harm to a citizen, officer, or offender themselves.
"It depends on the situation, but typically they are used with people who are combative towards the officer, noncompliant, resisting arrest, struggling, that's when people get hurt, in the fights," Bensley said.
There have been no injuries stemming from Grand Traverse sergeants' use of Tasers. Sergeants have had access to Tasers since 2004.
Deputies weren't given Tasers based on a 2004 recommendation from the county's insurance carrier over liability concerns. That same insurance carrier, the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority, in 2005 began providing grant money to its members to purchase Tasers.
MMRMA said in a letter to the county that costs to defend lawsuits over the use of excessive force dropped from over $7 million in 2003 to $366,600 in 2008, a reduction it attributes to Taser use.
The county board will consider the request during a committee meeting that begins Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. in the Governmental Center.
"It's probably not a bad idea," said Commissioner Ross Richardson. "It's a weapon and it's not totally harmless, but compared to pulling out a gun it's a step in the right direction."