Alternative force may be election issue

Friday, April 3, 2009

A chain of events last month in Lewisburg might appear to justify the city's purchase of stun guns for the Police Department.

This is no more than an observation because the police chief has a valid reason to hesitate before requesting Tasers, the brand-name stun guns that Chapel Hill recently purchased.

His concern is the argument from an attorney representing heirs of someone who died after being zapped. If not for the use of the stun gun, the health condition of the deceased would not have cause death at that time.

But, here's what happened here last month.

A man came into the newspaper office complaining that while driving a woman home from the hospital he was stopped by police and surrounded by officers who pointed guns at him, handcuffed him and arrested him.

What had he done? A blunt explanation might be that he broke his girlfriend out of the psych ward at a local hospital. From his perspective, he was taking her home since that's where she wanted to be.

Why was she hospitalized? She was grieving over the death of her new born child and had told people that she was questioning her strength to go on, although she'd apparently added that, on reflection, she decided to carry on.

However, medical professionals had been consulted on that and/or another matter and decided that for her well-being she should stay overnight. It seems she agreed at one point because she was there but, before too long, she called her friend and he picked her up.

Police respond to a wide range of situations and frequently, they don't know much about what they'll face. And, so it was on that evening last month.

The boy friend told us that he felt he'd been roughed up and that guns were unnecessary. Police shouldn't draw their guns without a reason. We don't know of an instance where that's happened here. But if there's an alternative, the consequences of pulling a different kind of trigger are considerably less traumatic.

As two police chiefs explained last month: Sometimes all it takes is for an officer to put a stun gun's red laser dot on someone with the requisite warning, and surrender follows.

Other devices are available. Pepper spray is one. A long rope twirled as a lariat, or a net might be possible, although the imagery of police working like cowboys trivializes the sad truth of what officers face more often than the public realizes. They're there when someone's reacting to grief, when people are confused, angry and desperate.

Ultimately, the purchase of stun guns is a financial decision made by the City Council. Lewisburg residents are voting this spring. Candidates are campaigning for several seats on the Council and perhaps the people should advise the candidates about what they want done.