Jay Kehoe is a taser man. A part-time Glastonbury, CT police officer and a full-time regional manager for Taser International, Kehoe drives a plush, customized Hummer with twin TASER vanity plates. He calls it his “double-duty circus wagon”: It serves as patrol car and sales wagon. Strapped to the roof is a set of sirens, which Kehoe uses to chase down suspects while on duty. The sides of the vehicle carry Taser International’s motto: “Saving Lives Every Day.” On the back, there’s a picture of the Taser X26. The bestselling “electronic control device,” it comes equipped with a daytime/nighttime camera that shoots infrared video, a laser beam that acts as a bullseye, and of course, a black cartridge that can emit over fifty thousand volts from up to 35 feet away.
Kehoe was the man in charge of teaching New Haven police officers how to use their new weapons after the city voted in favor of launching a pilot taser program last year. On July 10, New Haven Police Department Chief Francisco Ortiz announced that fifty Taser X26 guns were hitting the streets of New Haven. In addition to packing a powerful electric punch, the camera attached to the X26 records the action from the barrel of the gun, producing video clips that can be used as evidence. New Haven’s new stockpile of tasers joined caches already established in over ninety Connecticut towns.
Tasers arrived in the Elm City after a two-year debate over how the police force should respond to local crime. Though violent felonies in New Haven were down 9 percent last year, nonfatal shootings increased by 40 percent, most the result of clashes between officers and suspects that ended in gunfire. The Deadly Force Task Force, a council composed of 13 community members, set out to minimize police shootings after a local man was gunned down for flashing a knife at officers. They made a recommendation to the Board of Aldermen that tasers be used instead of deadlier weapons, and the Board approved their suggestion in turn. Now, along with expandable batons, pepper spray, handcuffs, and pistols, local police brandish the newest of less-than-lethal weapons.
The design of the Taser X26 mimics the shape and size of a gun, making it instinctively familiar to officers used to handling pistols. “We could have made it look like a toaster instead,” Kehoe jokes, “but we wanted to make sure officers would know how to handle it.” The company’s other models look decidedly less sinister. The Taser C2, the civilian model, comes in green, pink, blue, or leopard print. It looks like a cell phone and incapacitates attackers for 15 seconds.
Despite Taser International’s efforts to branch out to other markets, the police-friendly Taser X26 remains its bestseller. The same three-volt batteries that power digital cameras charge the X26. When discharged, it releases a rectangular black cartridge with fishhook-like probes that lodge into skin or clothing. According to New Haven’s General Police Orders, any probe embedded in suspects’ skin must be removed by certified medical personnel to avoid further injury.
Tasers affect the motor nervous system, disrupting the body’s normal electrical signals and causing muscles to involuntarily contract 19 times per second. While the taser’s fifty thousand volts certainly sound risky, Taser International’s official line maintains that electrical safety depends on not the volts but the joules. Kehoe insists that tasers have no adverse effect on coronary function. “It takes three to four hundred joules of energy to stop a heart. The taser delivers .21 joules,” Kehoe says. “Even if someone has a pacemaker, it would see the taser as electrical interference, that’s it.”
After a shooting, a police supervisor downloads the footage from the taser’s camera and records it to DVD. According to Rob Smuts, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, New Haven police officers have used tasers eight times since the program began last summer. The most recent incident involved a domestic dispute in which the husband sprinted for a pistol in the bedroom, only to be stunned by a taser before he could reach the gun. “But for the taser, the man or the officers could have been shot fatally,” Smuts says. “This was a textbook example of how tasers can step in to save lives.”
Since 1999, Kehoe tells me, there have been over a million discharges of the Taser X26 nationwide, including staged incidents during officer training sessions. Kehoe has tasered over 4,500 people in the field and during demonstrations. He has been tasered 27 times himself. I ask him what it feels like to be immobilized by a bolt of electricity for five seconds. “Have you ever hit your funny bone? Magnify that feeling over your entire body. It’s definitely uncomfortable, but when it’s done, it’s done,” he replies. He makes it sound almost ordinary.
“This device changes the way officers do their job,” Kehoe claims. He relates an incident: A few years ago he was searching a house suspected of containing large quantities of illegal drugs. When he got there with the search warrant, he and his fellow officers were overwhelmed by a snarling black dog. Though they would have shot the dog in the past, this time they were able to taser him. “Fifteen minutes later,” Kehoe tells me with a smile, “I was petting the guy.”
Kehoe insists that the electrical output from tasers has never directly caused a death. “Tasers are generally safe. Ninety-nine percent of the injuries related to taser use are minor ones that come from falling to the ground.” While organizations such as Amnesty International attribute over two hundred deaths to taser use, Kehoe admits to only twenty cases where tasers were even a contributing cause of death. In each of these incidents, the shock was compounded by drugs or preexisting heart problems. He flatly denies the possibility that the electric shock alone can kill a man. In Waterbury, he recounts, a naked man was found pitchforking his own car by the side of the highway last year. The man ran through two plate-glass windows before police were able to chase down and taser him. “This guy dies two or three hours later, and of course the headlines read ‘Tasered Man Dies’ the next day. But you know what? The autopsy found a lethal dose of cocaine in his blood. That’s what did it,” he says.
Regardless of Kehoe’s reassurances, public concerns continue to swarm around tasers. Amnesty International would like to see more independent testing, and has compiled a list of cases in which citizens have been tased inappropriately. According to Amnesty, children have been shocked for misbehaving at school. In 2005, a Colorado man was tased twice after allegedly stealing lettuce from a Chuck E. Cheese salad bar. But it’s the series of recent events at American universities that has shocked people into reconsidering taser use. At UCLA, a student named Mostafa Tabatabainejad was tasered after refusing to show police his library ID card during a routine check. Eyewitnesses swore that Tabatabainejad put up no physical resistance to the police and was tased while being handcuffed. At the University of Florida, student Andrew Meyer was tased after hogging the microphone at a John Kerry forum. His protests became condensed in the popular catchphrase, “Don’t tase me, bro!” Student demonstrations held afterward declared that the police had used excessive force. Coupled with Amnesty’s complaints, incidents of this kind suggest that police can be too hasty in pulling out their new weapons.
Even in situations involving real crimes, police might not have the training to use tasers effectively. Though Smuts and Kehoe attest to the excellence of New Haven’s taser program, the verdict outside city government remains unclear. Just four days after the pilot program was approved, police bungled the first incident involving tasers in the Elm City. After a suspect was tased for punching a police officer, the firefighters at the scene didn’t know how to remove the probes from his skin and had to take him to the hospital. Then, when no one could download the video evidence from the taser camera, an off-duty supervisor had to be summoned at three in the morning.
Despite the controversy, business is still good at Taser International. They’re the only manufacturer of the taser gun, not to be confused with the outmoded stun gun that induces pain instead of delivering the taser’s patented “electrical muscular interference.” “Our company name has become its own verb,” Kehoe proudly exclaims. “We’re like Kleenex or Xerox!” The company has been sued 64 times, but so far, all of the lawsuits have been dismissed.
To prove the safety of his company’s product, Kehoe offers to taser me so I can feel what it’s like to be temporarily incapacitated. “It doesn’t even have to touch your skin!” he promises. “I can just stick the probes onto your clothing.” I tell him I have a low pain tolerance and gently turn down his offer. Kehoe says that he won’t hold it against me. Instead, he pulls out a tiny silver pin from his briefcase and places it into my palm as a parting gift. The pin is a model of the Taser X26, reduced to one-tenth of its original size. I put it into my pocket for safekeeping. I’m sure I’ll never wear the pin, but I thank him nonetheless. This way, no one gets hurt.
Mai Wang is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College.