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Taser! Taser! Taser!
By Marvin Preston, LT, NH DOC
Published: 03/05/2012

Taser These three words have changed our department’s use of force employment.

Sgt Steve Johnson stood behind me. I was supported by Capt Scott Lambertson and Lt Boynton. This was the moment I had been cautiously waiting for. I heard Steve say the three words but it seemed like time was slowing down with each one. Taser! T a s e r! T-a-s-e-r-r-r!. The first feeling I remember was the feeling like I was punched in my lower back. Then it felt like I was on fire. Then it seemed like it wasn’t going to end. My mind was racing, “get away from this!” and “Steve, TURN THAT THING OFF!” Neither happened and it was over. The longest 5 seconds of my life. But what was more important at that moment was that I had to make sure he didn’t pull that trigger again!

Tasers in Corrections has been a slow moving trend. While our brothers on the streets, the police, have whole heartedly embraced them as a valuable tool in their use of force arsenal, many Correctional Departments and Facilities have been slower to answer the bell. Our Department put Tasers on line last year. During the year we’ve been pleasantly surprised with one conclusion. We’re fighting with inmates less. This is a deduction that those who don’t have them yet, should consider their addition. I’d like to show you the history behind New Hampshire State Department of Corrections and Tasers.

In the early 90’s I was a Platoon Leader for our Special Emergency Response Team (SERT). I was invited to witness a new product presentation that was being given to our Acting Commissioner and the Team Command Staff. A Taser rep gave a brief presentation on the basic science of an early Taser model. It resembled an old “Dust Buster”. I remember sitting in the room looking at it wondering how such an innocuous looking item would work on the 250 pound inmate we fought with in our Special Housing Unit (SHU) earlier that day. At the end of the presentation, the presenter lowered the lights and shot the Taser at a preplaced tin foil target. It cracked and popped and there was a low level light show that went with the electricity flowing down the lines. I was mildly amused, but was caught off guard by the response of our Acting Commissioner. She pushed her chair back, stood up, and stormed out of the room stating “We will NEVER use one of those in New Hampshire!” For 15-20 years, she was right.

In the summer of 2009 I received a note from my Commissioner telling me to go to a conference that the Taser Company was giving down in Taunton Massachusetts. This was a presentation that was geared towards Chiefs and Administrators. I was going as a hostile witness but being a “Training Traveler”, I never declined an opportunity. I had heard of and read many cases of where the Taser had killed the subject. The last thing I wanted was to be connected to an inmate’s lawsuit as the guy who brought this killing machine to our department. I was sadly mistaken and would return in a different mindset.

In the years prior, I had worked my way up to the rank of Lieutenant and was the Headquarters representative for the North East Product and Services Assessment Committee (NEPSAC). This was a group that met every quarter to review new products and services that were available to the Corrections community. We were supported by NIJ and had representatives from many Federal, State and County Departments from Maine to Maryland, Massachusetts to Ohio. During this time, I met professionals from a variety of backgrounds and in different positions. It was a very productive group and we reviewed some pretty cool stuff. Unfortunately the small state of New Hampshire’s budget didn’t allow for the purchase of many of the items in the presentations I witnessed. But I thought I’d call around to see who had the Taser and what were their experiences with it. I was very surprised to find that nobody in our group possessed any. There had to be a reason why, right? I must have been right I assumed, that it wasn’t a tool that would fit in a prison or jail or they all would have had them.

The Taser conference was broken down into segments. We listened to a presenter who showed us the science of it all. How the power was supplied by a couple batteries that you’d find in a digital camera. I learned that although 50,000 volts sounds scary, it’s the amps that should worry you, not the volts. And the .04 amps is much lower than the 1 amp that’s supplied to your Christmas tree light. One of things they went over and over was that the Taser, at that time, had never been identified as the actual cause of death in subjects. We were taught about Excited Delirium and how many times it was missed in subjects. They started to catch my attention.

The next presenter was their Training guy. Now here was somebody I could relate to. I paid close attention to how strict their training program was, how professional it appeared. I was now getting close to actually doing some deeper research on it. But the final presenter is the one who really got me.

The final presenter was a Lawyer who represented Taser. This was the guy who defends Taser in excessive force cases. Obviously he must have been a busy guy I thought. He gave one of the most memorable deliveries I had ever seen. He was a part time Police Officer so he was even on our side. He talked about proper training, policies and supervision. These were keys to any use of force options and he was right. Every use of force option can be misused. I saw him again at a shorter Taser presentation last year at MIT in Boston and enjoyed his latest class just as much. I was now armed and ready to pitch Tasers to my Commissioner.

When I returned, I met with the Commissioner to propose buying a number of these units for use in our Transport Teams and our higher security units. I found him to be very receptive. You see, our Commissioner was a Chief of Police in one of our Seacoast communities prior to taking over our Department. He told me it was the best tool he had gotten for his officers. He told me he was all for moving forward with purchasing them.

We purchased 11 units and got together with the all of our facility operations supervisors and developed a policy. A training policy was written with the requirement that any certified user would have to be exposed to the 5 seconds described above. We had some initial concerns from some of our officers about “riding the wire”, but now after certifying over 75 officers, we haven’t had a refusal yet. I’ve also heard from those who get certified that although they wish to never, ever, ever, experience that again it’s given them some good knowledge and confidence in the product.

A conclusion we’ve come to is that the mystery and concern that I had prior to being exposed, is shared by our inmates who reside in our cells. That just conducting a spark test in front of the cell while talking to the barricaded inmate has worked in over 95% of the times to get the inmate to back up to the tray slot and come out without a fight. This should be something that all administrators and operators walk away with. Whenever you find something that stops actual uses of force, everyone wins. No staff injuries, no inmate grievances or law suits, no investigations, etc. Everybody wins.

So in conclusion I’d like to say that we’ve found a very useful tool for Corrections. Is it perfect? No, but we’re fine tuning what we have. We’ve had two accidental discharges. One officer sent probes into the ceiling while conducting a spark test, another done in a control room while being handled by an uncertified user. Our environment at times doesn’t help with the breakable wires. But with every use we take a look to see how we can use it better. We’re finding better ways to deploy it and it seems to be working. I hope others that were hesitant about their use will give it a look. Your staff will appreciate it.

Lt. Marvin Preston works at the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. He has been in corrections for more than 20 years, and also is a retired Marine.

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  2. jamestown0509 on 03/15/2012:

    Unfortunately Tasers are forbidden in New York State prisons and jails. The NYS Commission of Correction has flatly ordered that no facility may use Tasers to subdue inmates. One of the Commissions officers told me that the Commission feels that Tasers would be used by officers as a form of punishment rather than compliance. I doubt seriously that you will see Tasers in any NY facility ever. Ironically it took a long time to get permission from the State Commission to use pepper spray on inmates for much the same reason. Finally we were allowed to use pepper spray within the use of force continuum when it is reasonable to do so, when a supervisor gives permission and is present during the use of pepper spray and that any inmate sprayed must be immediately de-contaminated. I am curious to ask if your officers have been trained to keep Tasers away from water as certainly you know inmates throw water, urine and everything they can during a fight. Also if the Taser hits steel bars and one of the officers or inmates is in close proximity to that metal do they risk being shocked by a missed shot?

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