Stun guns not in use in Richmond County

The Taser stun gun is used by deputies at the North Augusta Department of Public Safety office.

On March 26, a Richmond County deputy investigating a domestic dispute wound up wrestling on the ground with a man with a loaded gun in his pocket. Before the "lengthy struggle," the deputy sprayed the suspect with pepper spray "with no effect."

 

On April 9, two deputies tried to pull a suspected drunken driver from his car. When a deputy was punched in the face, the suspect was sprayed with pepper spray.

The driver got out of his car, but continued swinging at the deputies, who fought to restrain him until other deputies arrived, according to a report. Both deputies went to the hospital for injuries.

If these Richmond County deputies worked for North Augusta Public Safety, they would have had a stun gun to use after the ineffective pepper spray.

Spray depends on the pain of stinging eyes and burning lungs to subdue a rowdy suspect. A stun gun like the Taser temporarily paralyzes a person regardless of their ability to overcome pain.

So why are there no stun guns for Richmond County deputies? It's just not a move the sheriff's office is ready to make, particularly considering the costs of outfitting each deputy with one, said Sheriff Ronnie Strength.

"We definitely have not shut the door on it," he said. Adding stun guns to a deputy's arsenal is discussed several times a year.

If stun guns -- the most popular brand is Taser -- were phased into the sheriff's office, it would probably start at the jail, the sheriff said.

Special units and supervisors at the Aiken County Sheriff's Office carry stun guns, and they make up about 10 percent of the department, said Capt. Troy Elwell.

North Augusta police have carried Tasers, in addition to their collapsible batons, for several years now, said spokesman Lt. Tim Pearson.

Their use is based on the popular use of force continuum, which requires officers to reciprocate the level of force being dealt, plus a factor of one.

So, for instance, level one is talking with someone to calm him down, followed by laying hands on someone to physically direct her, then bringing the suspect to the ground. Using a Taser or baton is the second-to-last tier before lethal force.

Pearson said using the baton is "extremely rare" and couldn't remember the last instance it happened.

The last fatal shooting by an officer in North Augusta was 1993, after that officer was shot four times, Pearson said.

Deputies are trained annually specifically on using the Taser, he said.

Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser, said he would take a jolt from a stun gun over a whack from a baton any day. Traditional self-defense weapons such as pepper spray, batons and police dogs depend on pain causing compliance. But pain can be overcome, depending on a person's motivation or level of intoxication, Tuttle said.

The stun gun is different in that it locks the muscles of the body and cannot be overcome no matter how hard someone tries, Tuttle said.

The caveat is that both prongs shot from the weapon must pierce the skin, a feat that can be difficult if an officer is trying to fire a Taser while chasing someone on foot. Thick clothing such as a jacket or sweater can also foil the Taser.

Scott Bechthold, director of sales for baton manufacturer ASP, doesn't promote his self-defense weapon over stun guns such as Tasers. He encourages officers to carry as much protection as possible.

"There's no guarantee on any weapon," he said. "Officers should have not just a plan B, but plan D, too."

The collapsible baton has the advantage over the traditional billy club used years ago because it's always on an officer's belt, said Bechthold. The old, rigid clubs had to be kept above the headrest in a car or in the trunk.

Every Taser comes with a microchip that records when the weapon was deployed, at what time and how long the cycle lasted. Some models go a step further and have a camera that records the specific circumstances right before a suspect is shocked. Tuttle calls it an objective observer and a tool for accountability.

"You're never going to get that with canines, pepper spray or a baton," he said.

Both weapons are equal in some regards. Typically just the threat of using a stun gun or baton is sufficient to calm someone down, said Bechthold.

An extended baton, combined with an officer's body language and command voice, sends a signal that de-escalates situations, Bechthold said.

"A lot of people compare it to the racking of a shotgun," Bechthold said.

Sheriff Strength said the chance of a wrongful death or excessive use of force lawsuit is just as great with the baton as a Taser.

"People will sue you for anything," Strength said. People will blame the deputy or the weapon, but never consider that it's the suspect's fault, he said.