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Tasers Are Too Dangerous For On-Campus Use
Charlene van Dijk
November 4, 2006

Mount Holyoke Public Safety officers are on the cusp of acquiring tasers as part of their arsenal of law enforcement weapons. Growing concerns about campus safety have raised debate over whether or not Public Safety officers are adequately equipped for their jobs. Currently, campus officers wear bulletproof vests and are armed with pepper spray and batons. In a letter to the Mount Holyoke community, Mary Jo Maydew, Vice President of Finance and Administration, claimed that “a small but growing number of incidents are occurring on campus, mostly involving people who were not members of the Mount Holyoke community, leading us to conclude that our officers need additional equipment to protect both themselves and others.”

Tasers are being touted as the answer to Mount Holyoke's safety concerns when in reality, tasers are neither safe nor necessary. Tasers, or hand-held electroshock guns, are supposed to function as non-lethal alternatives to conventional law enforcement firearms. They are described euphemistically as electro-muscular disruption technology, a sanitized term describing the muscular paralysis that occurs when a person is subjected to 50,000 volts of energy. A taser stun incapacitates a subject by overriding her motor nervous system, causing skeletal muscles to contract involuntarily. Taser shocks, which are supposedly non-lethal, killed at least 148 people in the United States and Canada between 1999 and 2005. Certain medical conditions increase the potential fatality of the weapon, as do various prescribed medications used to treat psychiatric problems. A former Los Angeles medical examiner found that “pre-existing heart disease, psychosis, and the use of drugs including cocaine, PCP, amphetamines, and alcohol” may contribute to a higher fatality rate.

As independent data concerning the safety of electro-muscular disruption technology when applied to drug or alcohol-compromised individuals is limited, the International Association of Chiefs of Police is urging reassessment of taser safety. In a recent article in The News, Director of Public Safety Paul Ominksy described a situation where tasers could have been used to better protect the community. The suspect was “intoxicated, 6'5, 250 lbs, with a criminal record and a history of fighting.” In this situation, if armed with tasers, the officers would have shocked an individual who was under the influence of alcohol, despite potential health concerns and the increased fatality rate. In all situations in which a taser might be used, Public Safety officers have no way of knowing whether or not the individual has a pre-existing heart condition or any other predisposition that might put the person at greater risk of a lethal shock. Furthermore, lethal force is not necessary in such situations.

Although tasers are meant to be non-lethal weapons, supporters claim they are a substitute for semi-automatic firearms, which would never be used to subdue a drunk, unwieldy suspect. Public Safety has done a superb job of protecting the Mount Holyoke community using conventional methods in the past without tasers. Why are tasers necessary now? According to the Department of Public Safety's July 1, 2006 document “Safe and Sound,” the number of arrests for weapons, liquor and drug violations peaked in 2002, when officers made 15 total arrests. There were 12 arrests in 2003, six in 2004 and four in 2005. The total number of campus crimes for 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 are 82, 84, 79 and 101 respectively.

A rise in crime in 2005 does not indicate that there will be an increase in crime in subsequent years. Fear mongers want the Mount Holyoke community to feel unsafe so that the use of tasers will be justified. Proponents of tasers on our campus claim either we arm campus safety officers with tasers to protect the community or leave our campus and our officers vulnerable. Such an argument is a false dichotomy; Public Safety officers are trained in various law enforcement methods and procedures that do not entail the use of tasers. Given Mount Holyoke's low crime rate and the high risk associated with taser use, do we really need them here?

This site is maintained by Sarah Owocki. She can be contacted at owock20s@mtholyoke.edu