A woman lies on the floor in the basement of Forest Park Village Hall.
She has volunteered to be Tasered at Forest Park’s Citizen Police Academy.
Two electrical clips clamped to her shirt attach to curly 15-foot wires, leading to a banana-yellow plastic Taser held by Sgt. Eric Bell of the Forest Park Police Dept.
“Are you ready?” Bell asks. Then he pulls the trigger of the Taser X26 electronic control device, sending 50,000 volts of electricity through the wires.
The woman screams in agony and writhes on the floor, “Stop! Stop! Please!” she cries. But the electricity continues, dropping to 1,200 volts and lasting five seconds. The electric current flowing between the clips and through the woman’s muscles causes “full neuromuscular incapacitation.” At the end of five of the longest seconds of her life, the woman steps to her feet. “Congratulations, you made it through,” said Bell.
“I feel fine,” the test-subject said with surprise shortly afterward. “I just couldn’t move.”
Descriptions of Tasering vary among those who experience it. One woman who sued the Sangamon County Sherriff’s Dept. in 2011 called it, “Ten times worse than childbirth.”
But as Bell tells the Citizen Police Academy participants, “Tasering has no long-lasting effects and it’s the safest tool for law enforcement for controlling violent subjects, in my opinion.”
Sgt. Bell is the Taser training coordinator for the department, having learned how to use the devices in 2004 when they were introduced to the force.
The Forest Park Police Department has 12 Taser X26 units, which are circulated through the patrol and detective divisions. Carrying them is optional. The department received a grant for the first Tasers, costing around $800 each from the U.S. Dept. of Justice in 2004, and then a second grant from Walmart.
According to Bell, the use of a Taser helps prevent injuries both to suspects and police officers when used during the arrests of agitated, resisting subjects. This cuts down on workman’s compensation claims and suspect injuries, especially in a town where many arrests are made of intoxicated or drugged suspects.
“Alcohol is so unpredictable. It affects people so differently. Sometimes it gives people ‘beer muscles’ where they get aggressive and challenge everyone – especially authority.”
“Our other choices are pepper spray, which almost always contaminates officers as well as suspects, and impact weapons like a club or our fists and feet.”
“Emotionally disturbed or intoxicated people can fight through pepper spray,” Bell said.
Bell said part of the public’s fear of Tasers is a function of not knowing how they work. He said while the electrical force of 50,000 volts pushes the electricity into the person being Tasered, the actual electrical current is .0036 of an amp. In comparison, a wall outlet carries a current of 110 amps and a Christmas tree light bulb has a current of 1 amp.
“It’s not like throwing a toaster into the bathtub,” he said. “The Taser does not electrocute you.”
On the street, the Taser unit shoots out two fish-hook barbed probes that fly on wires 15 feet through the air and pierce the skin or clothing of the suspect.
Bell himself has been Tasered three times, once for 10 seconds during a training exercise. All of the Forest Park officers who carry electronic control devices (ECDs) get the jolt when they train. Training helps officers learn not to fear the electricity. Being Tasered themselves, the officers learn how the electrical current incapacitates the body and what to look for to see whether the probes have formed a “good connection.”
“The Taser provides a window of opportunity to gain control of a resistive or aggressive person and temporarily incapacitate them,” said Bell. “Hopefully for enough time to get them handcuffed.”
Each X26 unit contains a mini-computer that records the time, date and duration of each use, as well as the number of trigger pulls. Information is downloaded and used in arrest reports for accuracy.
Bell said the Taser was invented as a safe tool to add a step in the continuum of force that police use in arrests. The first step on the spectrum is “social control,” speaking to the offender and asking them to cooperate. Second on the spectrum is physical control, grabbing the suspect by the arms. But then if suspects resist violently, the options available to police get dangerous for both cops and subjects.
Some suspects can’t be stopped with force or pepper spray.
“Suicide by cop is real,” said Bell. “When somebody looks at me and yells, ‘Why don’t you kill me?’ those are the people I’m going to Taser.”
The Chicago Tribune released a January study reporting Taser incidents in eight randomly selected suburbs had almost doubled between 2008 and 2011. State Rep. Monique Davis of Chicago sponsored a Taser reporting bill in February calling for state police to keep track of every use of an electro-shock weapon against a civilian and to detail the race of the subject. So far, the legislation has stalled.
Taser use varies by municipality. Many police departments have been sued by citizens who’ve been shocked by police with the weapons.
Forest Park was sued in 2004 when Jose Santana claimed he was beaten and Tasered while handcuffed in jail. A jury awarded Santana $50,000 in 2011.
The Forest Park Review has reported 11 incidents of Taser use against suspects so far in 2012, based on arrest reports provided by the police.
Bell stands by the Taser as a way to safely get compliance from aggressive suspects without resorting to physical harm or deadly force.
“There is no doubt in my mind that once they’ve been trained on a Taser,” he said, “a police officer feels safer with a Taser by their side.”