Three dozen Roanoke police officers have started carrying Tasers, a stun gun that the department plans to extend to all 250 patrol officers in coming years.
“It’s an additional tool we have on our tool belt when deescalation techniques don’t necessarily work or other types of force aren’t working,” Capt. Arron Cook said.
Hundreds of law enforcement agencies nationwide have adopted the devices to give officers an alternative to pepper spray and batons.
Tasers are designed to shoot out darts whose five-second electrical charge causes a person’s muscles to freeze.
Since late June, 35 senior officers, animal wardens and SWAT officers have carried Tasers. The department will issue 20 more as soon as another training is scheduled, a police spokeswoman said. Training consists of an eight-hour class, which involves being stunned by a Taser.
The department spent $84,039 on the devices and related equipment. That money came from a mix of department funds, grants and federal asset forfeiture money.
Cook said shortly after Tim Jones became chief in mid-2016, police brass talked about what additional nonlethal weapons the department should have. Those conversations were prompted by a 2015 Obama administration report on policing that recommended departments adopt such devices in the wake of fatal police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere.
After a fatal 2007 police shooting in Roanoke, then-Chief Joe Gaskins said the department was not considering adding Tasers but declined to say why. Under Chief Chris Perkins, who led the department from 2010 to 2016, the topic did not come up publicly.
Cook cited the “huge cost” as one reason the department came later to Taser adoption than some smaller agencies. He said “it was just time to move forward with it” after seeing how the devices worked at other departments nationally.
The process of adopting Tasers required the department to revise its use-of-force policy.
“We only use it when there’s aggressive physical activity or the threat of that,” Cook said. “We don’t use it on someone that’s passive at all.”
Police data nationally has shown a drop in officer and suspect injuries after departments start using the devices, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice report.
Roanoke County police have used Tasers since 2012, said Cmdr. Chris Kuyper, the department’s lead Taser instructor.
He estimated that the department’s officers deployed Tasers three or four times per month. But most of those deployments simply involve an officer taking a Taser out of its holster but not firing the weapon.
“The beauty of the Taser is when an individual sees that you have it, especially if it’s been used against them before, they deescalate,” Kuyper said. “To have a device that deescalates a situation just by looking at it, it’s worth its weight in gold.”
While death or serious injury from Taser usage is rare, they’re not fool-proof weapons.
At a dozen major police departments, Tasers were effective 55% to 80% of the time, according to a 2019 investigation and data analysis by American Public Media. That was far lower than the rate touted by Axon, Taser’s manufacturer.
The report also documented 258 cases in three years in which a Taser failed to subdue someone who was subsequently killed by police.
One of those was the 2016 fatal shooting of Kionte Spencer in Roanoke County. Officers shot Spencer after a first Taser didn’t make contact and a second had no effect.
Kuyper said the department evaluates each use of a Taser, which he estimated work in 60% to 70% of cases.
“Just like firearms don’t stop a threat 100% of the time,” he said.
Cook said it would take several more years to outfit all officers with a Taser because of the costs.
So far, police used Tasers effectively in two situations that he wouldn’t describe.
“I’ve heard good feedback” from officers, Cook said. “I’m glad we’ve finally taken this step and received this additional tool.”