Forbis uncertain about deploying stun guns here

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lewisburg's police chief is undecided about whether officers should be issued stun guns, he said Friday when details were emerging about a bail bondsman's injuries in Cornersville from a Taser.

The chief sees advantages, but he recognizes that there's a perception among members of the general public about Tasers, the brand-name product that's the best known stun gun deployed to briefly incapacitate a suspect. Sometimes, a suspect's health can be worsened and death might result. That's what people remember, instead of successful policing without use of a firearm.

Police Chief Chuck Forbis spoke about his decades of experience in a much larger department in Florida before moving to Lewisburg. The Sarasota County Sheriff's Department has Tasers, similar to those recently deployed by the Chapel Hill Police Department, where Chief Jackie King says just the prospect of one of his officer's use of a Taser prompted a suspect to surrender.

That happened in Sarasota County, too, said Forbis who said he's fascinated with how electronic technology can be used in police work.

"After we issued Tasers to the deputies," Chief Forbis said of his years with the Sarasota Sheriff, "there was a significant decrease in injuries to deputies and arrestees."

After a few weeks of Chapel Hill officers carrying Tasers, King described how and why a suspect surrendered from under a mobile home with only the potential use of a Taser that shines a laser's red dot to show where the darts will hit. It's what Forbis realized in Florida.

"As soon as the suspect saw the red dot, they surrendered," Forbis said of the deputies' experience in Sarasota, Fla.

The Taser is an alternative to a firearm and one that's more appropriate in more situations, Forbis said, explaining, "You'd use a firearm in a deadly-force situation.

"If you are going after a somebody's who's a shoplifter, you're not going to pull your weapon and shoot them," he said. "Tasers are not to replace a firearm in a deadly-force situation.

"There are two hand-held stun guns here" at Lewisburg Police Headquarters, Forbis said, "but you'd have to hold them against the suspect. They're too old to have any confidence in them."

And those old models measure about three inches wide and eight inches long. Pistol-shaped Tasers might be about that size, but they shoot darts attached to 25-foot wires.

Does he want Tasers for his officers?

"I don't know," Forbis replied, again reflecting on what he saw in Florida. "Any time you can keep people from getting killed, it's a good thing.

"But what people remember is the incident when somebody gets shocked and dies," he said.

A few years ago, a flurry of national media reports on Tasers described deaths of people who'd been shocked by stun guns. Some departments had internal reports.

"In all the ones I've seen and read" about deaths associated with Tasers, Forbis recalled, "there's an underlying condition."

Thereafter, he said, "The argument is: 'But for the Taser, the underlying medical condition would not have caused that person's death at that time.'"

That argument may be from an attorney suing a police department on behalf of a dead man's heirs.

So, for now, Forbis won't be asking the Lewisburg City Council to provide funding in his next annual budget for the purchase of Tasers. Instead, he plans to ask for more technology for the department.

Details on that are expected to emerge as he and other city officials proceed toward developing a police spending plan for fiscal year 2009-10. Annual budgets start on July 1.