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Taser provides nonlethal weapon

The call came in to sheriff's deputies at five minutes past midnight: suicidal man in a trailer near Clearwater-Largo Road.

It was early Wednesday. Deputies entered an open door to the trailer and saw the 27-year-old man bleeding from his wrist, clutching a knife.

"I'm not coming out," the 6-foot 2-inch, 195-pound man yelled.

Standing about 5 feet away, a deputy decided to use the latest option in the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's arsenal, a Taser. It packs 50,000 volts and 26 watts of electric energy.

The man fell to the ground. So did the knife.

Moments later, deputies were bandaging the man's wrist. He later recovered. No deputy was hurt.

Tasers are growing in popularity among law enforcement agencies as a nonlethal alternative to defuse tricky situations. On Monday, 34 county deputies were outfitted with Tasers. The department's remaining 400 patrol deputies will be given Tasers by 2005, as the budget permits. They cost $720 apiece, including holster and cartridges.

In the first week of use, Pinellas deputies have used them twice. In addition to the suicidal man, deputies employed a Taser to subdue a very large, drunk and combative man in Dunedin who refused to leave a relative's home and struggled with deputies.

"I think it's going to be a good tool," said Sheriff's Office spokesman Detective Tim Goodman.

Tasers work this way: Each one shoots two probes, connected by thin wires, up to 21 feet. An electrical signal transmits through where the probes hit the body or clothing. The result is instant loss of the suspect's neuromuscular control. Translation: You drop.

Five seconds later, you're back to normal. There is no lasting harm.

"Some people describe it as painful, some don't," said Cpl. Nathan Samoranski, one of two Taser training officers for the Sheriff's Office.

Samoranski decided to find out for himself.

"It was an entirely unpleasant sensation," Samoranski said. "It felt like all the muscles in my body collapsing on themselves. When it stopped, I didn't want any more of it."

Which is the point.

Combative suspects can be taken into custody without a deputy having to physically confront them. That's safer for the deputy and the suspect, Goodman said.

Goodman said other departments' experience suggests that injuries to officers drop by as much as 80 percent after they are outfitted with Tasers. Injuries to suspects also decline, he said.

Clearwater police supervisors had been using Tasers for years, but last year the department ordered 150 more so all patrol officers can carry the weapon.

In Pinellas County, deputies have shot 23 suspects over the past five years. It's uncertain how many, if any, of the incidents could have been avoided had the deputies had Tasers, Goodman said. But the hope is that Tasers can be used to resolve potentially violent situations before they escalate so much that a deputy must use a gun.

"I guess we'll have to watch the statistics as years go by," Goodman said.

Tasers will never be a substitute for a gun, Samoranski said: "This is not a magic bullet."

But in many instances, it will provide deputies with a "less than lethal" alternative to get noncompliant suspects into custody. Say someone is on the drug PCP, he said. People can withstand all kinds of injury without feeling pain if they have ingested it. The Taser still would subdue them.

Or suppose someone has a knife, he said. If deputies have to physically confront the suspect, there is a high potential for injury. Lethal force might be justified in such a case, he said, but might be avoided with a Taser.

Every deputy who got a Taser went through eight hours of training last week, including live scenarios and role playing about the situations in which to use it.

"There is nothing to dictate when a deputy is going to pull a weapon," Samoranski said. "It's up to the discretion of the officer."

Samoranski said he knows the day will come when a deputy shoots a knife-wielding suspect and people will question why the deputy didn't simply use a Taser.

"It is not a replacement for lethal weapons in any way shape or form," he said. "But Tasers are designed as a less lethal option in some situations."