Tasers vs. guns in the eyes of an officer

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Photo: Whitney Amado

Photo: Whitney Amado

It was 3:30pm on July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, New York. Eric Garner was walking in front of 202 Bay Street as an NYPD officer approached him, suspicious that he was selling “loosies” (single cigarettes) from packages without tax stamps.

The officer immediately went to arrest Garner. However, when Daniel Pantaleo took Garner’s wrist behind his back, Garner snatched his arms away. Pantaleo then put Garner into a chokehold for about 15 to 19 seconds, pinning him to the ground. After the officer removed his arm from Garner’s neck, he pushed his face into the ground. Garner repeated, “I can’t breathe” eleven times while lying face down on the ground. Garner soon lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead an hour later.

Now let’s rewind back to the part where Eric Garner snatches his wrist away from the officer. What if the officer used a Taser to restrain Garner instead of holding him in a chokehold? Garner might still have been alive today. What if officers reached for Tasers before they reached for guns, or before issuing physical force that could potentially end up killing a suspect?

Detective Steven V. Sample of the Pleasantville Police Department in Pleasantville, New Jersey talks about gun policy while on duty and whether Tasers should be used over guns when approaching a suspect. Detective Sample has spent 15 years as a law enforcement officer and two years as a patrolman. He was also assigned to the F.B.I Violent Crimes Task Force for four years and the Detective Bureau for nine years.

When approaching a suspect, Detective Sample says he will draw his firearm and keep it at his side if he feels there is a potential threat. However, he will only fire his weapon if the suspect attempts to use a deadly weapon against a victim or himself.

“Displaying my firearm is not a crime. To display a weapon is to gain control of a possibly dangerous situation and remind the suspect that deadly force will be used if necessary.  It all depends on the situation and if the officer perceives an immediate threat,” said Sample.

When an officer is on duty, there are policies pertaining to use of force. If an officer reaches for their weapon or is displaying his or her firearm, Detective Sample describes it as “Constructive Force.” It’s at the officer’s discretion if at any time the officer feels threatened that he or she can pull out their firearm.

As an officer one is trained to stop a threat;  it is not an officer’s goal to kill a suspect, but when your job is to protect the lives of others, death can occur. “I didn’t take this job to kill anyone, but I will go home to my family at the end of my shift.  I will also do everything in my power to see my fellow officers go home to their families as well.  If the suspect is wounded, great.  If the suspect is killed due to him or her trying to take my life or someone else’s life, I’m prepared to live with the fact that I stopped that person from taking my life or someone else’s life,” said Sample.

When a suspect is resisting arrest as Eric Garner was, it is police policy that the officer use the necessary force to make the arrest. “If the person is fighting me to get away, I’m going to have to increase my level of force to take that person into custody.  My firearm will only be used if the person uses or attempts to use a weapon against me,” said Sample.

The usual shock of a Taser will last for approximately five seconds, making them very effective when trying to stop a suspect. Once the shock is over ,there are no side effects. However, if the suspect continues to resist, another shock can easily be administered on the suspect and they will feel it.“I believe if the suspect is hit with the Taser, he will comply with the officers so they could handcuff the suspect,” said Sample.

Emergency Medical Technician Charles Alexander says he has never treated any Taser injuries himself, but has witnessed the injuries being treated. However, due to HIPPA regulations, he could not express the extent of these injuries.

Alexander believes that when apprehending suspects, Tasers over bullets is the safer choice. “I think a Taser is the better choice of service weapon, depending on the nature of the call and the history of the suspect.”

When asked about his opinion on Tasers before guns, Sample says he is a full supporter. “I am all for having Tasers. I believe that if a Taser was used in reference to Eric Garner, he may still have been alive today.  I also believe that if he had not resisted the officers after they told him he was under arrest, he would be alive today.  Some people think it’s alright for a person to resist the police and we are just supposed to let the person walk away.  If I tell you that you are under arrest, that does not give you the right to walk away from me with no consequence behind it. You will be taken into custody. Tasers can be very effective when trying to stop a suspect. However, Tasers may not be effective on some people who are under the influence of narcotics and also mentally ill people,” said Sample.

While Detective Sample believes in Tasers before guns, he recalls a time in his career where a life had to be taken. “I would say I am a big fan of the use of Tasers. However, in some situations, I may have to go straight to my firearm.  I’ve been involved in a situation where a suspect was armed with a butcher knife.  The suspect kept charging at me and my fellow officers. Had we been certified and approved to carry Tasers at the time, the suspect would be alive today. That situation was the perfect moment that a Taser would have been very useful.  Unfortunately, deadly force had to be used against the male suspect and he died as a result of his actions towards the police,” said Sample.

Being an officer is a tough job ;sometimes you may have to take a life to save a life. However, Detective Sample believes in doing whatever it takes to preserve the lives of others.“I became a police officer to protect and save lives.  Anything that can be used to assist me with my daily operation of a police officer and that will prevent someone from being killed is greatly accepted in my opinion,” said Sample.