BOSTON (State House News Service) – Police officers in Massachusetts used or threatened to use a Taser or stun gun more than a thousand times last year, a slight increase from 2013.
In 2014, police departments reported 1,037 Taser or stun gun contacts — defined as an individual officer issuing a warning, displaying the weapon or deploying the weapon toward a single subject. That was a 3.7 percent increase over the total contacts reported in 2013 and a .17 percent increase over the total reported in 2012, according to a newly filed state report.
The report, presented to the Legislature by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, tracks each use of an electronic control weapon (ECW) — a term that encompasses Tasers and stun guns — by police officers around the state.
A vast majority of subjects involved in ECW contacts were male (88.5 percent), about 69 percent were white, 16.8 percent were black, 11.9 percent were Hispanic and 1.6 percent were labeled as “other.”
Among municipal police departments, New Bedford reported the greatest number of incidents — 105, down from 125 in 2013 and 145 in 2012 — followed by Lawrence (57), Brockton (30), Fall River (29), and Holyoke, Taunton and Wareham (27 each).
Of the five non-municipal departments authorized to carry ECWs, including the Massachusetts State Police, only the Northeast Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council reported any ECW-involved incidents last year (2).
The state does not have readily-available data on deaths associated with ECW use, but a list of 2014 police-involved deaths compiled by WGBH reported a Chelsea man died after police used a Taser three times to subdue him.
Proponents say ECWs are less lethal alternatives to firearms that still allow officers to protect themselves and the public during potentially violent situations.
On Monday, Andover and North Reading police used a Taser to subdue a man who was allegedly trying to commit “suicide by cop” at a busy intersection in North Reading, the police department said.
The man waved a knife at officers and repeatedly asked the officers to shoot him, according to police. North Reading requested assistance from the Andover department, which equips its officers with Tasers, and the man was safely subdued with a Taser, police said.
North Reading currently does not arm its officers with Tasers, but has plans to deploy them later this year once all of its officers undergo training, chief Michael Murphy said in a statement.
As of Dec. 31, 2014, 190 municipal police departments and five non-municipal agencies had approval from the Secretary of Public Safety and Security to train and arm officers with ECWs. At the end of 2013, 172 departments had been authorized to use such weapons.
Nationwide, the number of local police departments that use Tasers or stun guns increased more than 10 times between 2000 and 2013, up from 7 percent to 81 percent, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 2004, former Gov. Mitt Romney signed a law making Massachusetts the 49th state to allow police officers to carry ECWs, which Romney equated to a “modern billy club.”
Massachusetts law requires departments to receive approval from EOPSS before it buys ECWs or begins to train its officers in their use, but each department is responsible for setting its own policies for the use of ECWs.
“EOPSS approves department training programs,” EOPSS spokesman Felix Browne told the News Service. “Departments are generally responsible for their own procedures, provided their training has been approved by EOPSS.”
The law also mandates that ECWs contain a mechanism in order to track each time the weapon is deployed, and that EOPSS compile an annual report for the Legislature on the use of ECWs.