CHP to be armed with stun guns

The state's 6,500 California Highway Patrol officers will begin patrolling the roads with stun guns in tow in the coming weeks.

CHP commanders approved buying 1,659 stun guns after a field study of the guns showed they are a valuable tool for officers.

The Merced area CHP office received eight this month. And the Modesto area office received 12, enough so every of-ficer on duty can use one, the department said. The Modesto office plans to wrap up training this month, and Merced plans to complete its training next month. Then officers will be able to check out the guns for their shifts.

"Ultimately, we hope this will reduce the potential for injury to our officers," said officer John Chituras at the Modesto area office.

CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said the desired outcome is that the mere display of the guns will defuse tense situations, as it did in 33 of 73 instances when the guns were drawn during the six-month field study. The 40 times the weapons were used, six suspects were injured, mostly from falling after being stunned.

Jon Hamm, chief executive officer of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, said he's heard accounts of officers gaining an edge on suspects just by claiming to have a Taser.

"People know -- you don't want to mess with a Taser," he said.

They make an electronic clicking noise that officer Shane Ferriera, with the Merced office, said might be an effective deterrent for combative suspects.

"In some cases, we issue a citation and send them on their way but if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, we have them come out of the vehicle and we can get a situation where someone resists, and the Taser can ensure the officer's safety," he said.

Other law enforcement departments across the Northern San Joaquin Valley have used the devices, including police in Modesto, Turlock, Ceres, Manteca, Ripon and the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

The CHP report has no analysis of civilian safety but says Tasers should save the agency money if all officer injuries are eliminated. Clader said the CHP bought the X-26 stun guns for $788.85 each.

After an officer stuns a suspect, the suspect will be taken to a hospital for evaluation, Calder said.

An Amnesty International director applauds that policy but urges all law enforcement to hold off on using the stun gun unless deadly force is the only other option.

Mona Cadena, director of Amnesty International's Western Region, said 284 people have died after being shot by a Taser stun gun since 2001 and only 25 were carrying a weapon.

Cadena said coroner's officials ruled the Taser as a possible or contributing cause in 26 of the deaths.

She said there is too little research into the stun gun's effect on the body for it to be used routinely.

"I don't know if we can truly answer the question: How much force are we using when we use the Taser?" she said.

Officials from Taser International, the company from which the CHP bought the guns, dispute that, saying the device is safe.

Spokesman Steve Tuttle said the Taser stun gun has been listed as a contributory cause in only six deaths.

"Hands down, this piece of technology is the safer alternative for use of force for the CHP as well as the citizens of California," he said. "Compare this to a baton strike, and I think you understand what I'm talking about."

Calder said department policy directs officers to use the stun gun when faced with "an overt act or aggressive action where the subject is presenting a potential risk to an officer or public safety."

Modesto Bee staff writer Inga Miller contributed to this report.