When the idea came up a few years ago about equipping Washington County sheriff’s officers with electroshock weapons — better known as Tasers — Sheriff Ed Graybeal was a hard sell.
But Graybeal tasked Capt. Bryan Horton with researching the issue before he looked at the data and case studies. At that point it was almost a no-brainer, both men said this week.
Tasers are weapons that fire barbs attached by wires to batteries that deliver 1,200 volts of low-amp electricity for five seconds. According to the Taser website, it’s a big enough punch to stop someone in their tracks, but not enough to inflict serious damage or injury.
Leighta Laitinen, chief operations officer at the Sheriff’s Office, said activating the device with no cartridge on it — called a dry stun — does produce a 50,000 volt of electricity, but once the weapon touches the body the resistance reduces that to 1,200 volts.
Horton said studies show Tasers reduce officer injuries and save lives of officers as well as suspects.
“The sheriff was very adamant we study this before agreeing to this,” Horton said. About a year and a half ago, the sheriff’s office purchased the first round of Tasers and put patrol officers through training.
The sheriff’s office recently purchased around 48 more devices with drug seizure funds. Most of those will be assigned to patrol officers, but soon, detention officers will also carry the devices.
“Patrol has had these for about a year and a half, and we’re just now introducing them into the detention center. We’ve received a lot of success out in the field. The officers really appreciate another tool they can use,” said Laitinen.
Detention officers are limited on what items they have to assist them while subduing unruly inmates.
“The only weapon detention officers have is the pepper spray,” while an inmate could have a homemade weapon, or “shank,” Laitinen said.
As with patrol officers, the Taser will allow a detention officer to take control of an inmate without laying hands on that person or having to get too close until the person is subdued.
Horton said his research showed that while some people shocked with a Taser have suffered medical issues, those usually stem from an unrelated problem.
As a safeguard for officers and anyone subjected to being shocked, Horton maintains records on each Taser and each one-use cartridge assigned to an officer.
“Once the Taser is used, it’s taken out of service until I can download that information. Each Taser cartridge has its own serial number,” he said.
The department’s goal is to equip every patrol officer with the device, but not every detention officer will have one.
Laitinen said shift supervisors and members of SORT — or Special Operations Response Team — will be the first officers trained to carry the devices.
Laitinen and Graybeal were two of the first in their respective training sessions to take the “hit” as Laitinen calls it.
“It hurt,” she said with a laugh. “I took a three-second hit with the Taser. As an administrator I don’t normally carry a weapon in here, but I wanted to go through the training. If my officers are going to carry them, I wanted to go through it with them,” she said.
“You immediately stop,” once the Taser probes hit, Laitinen said. “You have no control. I can see how this would be an absolutely effective tool for our officers.”
Graybeal went through the training when patrol officers were certified. He agreed with Laitinen that the Taser is nothing to mess with. For those who find themselves on the potential receiving end of the device, both advise the person comply with an officer’s commands.
Graybeal said the Tasers also have a pre-deployment red laser that centers on the spot the sharp probes will strike a person. Often, he said, the laser is such a deterrent for suspects that the officer doesn’t even have to fire.
“People will stop resisting or will follow orders as soon as they see that light,” Graybeal said.
With implementing the new device, the Sheriff’s Office revamped the General Orders for patrol officers and are in the process now of doing that for detention officers.
Those General Orders dictate how officers can deploy the Taser and the process they must go through beforehand.
As a safety issue, prior to implementing Tasers, the sheriff’s office switched from an alcohol-based pepper spray to a water-based pepper spray. That’s because of fire incidents elsewhere in which a Taser deployed after a suspect was pepper sprayed.
Officers are frugal about deploying Tasers. Last year, the device was deployed only six times in the county, Horton said.
But administrators agree it’s a better choice in many situations than the service weapon officers carry.
“Anytime you can use something besides your firearm, you want to do that,” Laitinen said. “The firearm is the last use of force on our continuum. The Taser is just another tool to keep from doing serious damage to an animal or to an inmate or criminal you’re trying to subdue.”