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Posted March 29, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Police Tasers don't always stop suspects in confrontations

By Joe Beck

The use of a Taser ended a dangerous confrontation Monday afternoon between Front Royal police and a man they say was wielding two knives, but the electroshock weapon isn't always so effective.

Police say a Taser discharge knocked Shane E. Bowling to the ground and allowed them to disarm him without serious injury. The arrest of Bowling, 34, of 2265 Wilson Blvd., Winchester, came after an incident in Martinsburg, W.Va., earlier this month ended in the shooting death of a suspect after a Taser failed to subdue him during a struggle with police.

Police said the Martinsburg suspect stabbed one of them with a knife.

Sgt. Christopher Deavers, who trains Front Royal police on Taser use, said the handheld devices are far from a sure fire non-lethal alternative to guns during encounters between police and potentially violent suspects.

The use of a Taser against Bowling was unusual for Front Royal police. Deavers estimated that officers have deployed Tasers an average of two to four times a year since the department acquired them in 2003 or 2004.

"It's not a precision weapon," Deavers said. "It's just not 100 percent. There are a lot of things you have to take into account. Just like when you use your firearm, it all depends on how it impacts an individual and what type of effect it is going to have."

Police said they arrested Bowling around 1 p.m. after the Warren County Sheriff's Office received a 911 call from him stating that he had slit his wrists and was carrying a 9mm handgun with him at 219 Cloud St.

The sheriff's office asked Front Royal police to join deputies on Cloud Street, where they condoned off some apartments and found Bowling after a search.

Police said they called in a hostage negotiator who spoke with Bowling by cell phone and persuaded him to come out of an apartment.

After Bowling emerged, he threw two knives on the ground, and then returned inside the apartment building, according to police. He walked back out about 15 minutes later with two more knives that he began swinging "in such a manner as to create an obvious threat to law enforcement officers at the scene," according to a news release from Chief Norman A. Shiflett.

Shiflett said the deployment of a Taser halted Bowling and "brought him to the ground" as he tried to reenter the apartment building.

Police said they took Bowling to Warren Memorial Hospital for self-inflicted arm injuries, but he refused medical attention and was later taken to the Warren County Jail for a mental health evaluation.

Bowling, who has pending charges in Winchester for violating a protective order, was charged with obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct.

Deavers cited clothing as a major factor in whether a Taser will have the intended effect on a suspect.

Tasers work by firing two electronically charged prongs that are propelled by nitrogen charges similar to a BB gun. The prongs remain connected to the main unit and are pointed to allow them to penetrate clothing, but they are only about a quarter inch or 3/8 of an inch long.

Deavers said the prongs must reach the skin, but clothing, such as thick leather belts, sometimes stops them.

"If it reaches the skin, it will have an effect," Deavers said, adding that how the electrical shock is distributed through the body is another factor in determining effectiveness.

The ideal Taser shot affects as much muscle mass as possible with a wide spread pattern in which one prong hits the upper torso, and the other the lower part of the body below the belt.

"If you're too close, if you have a one-foot spread pattern, you're not going to affect as much muscle mass as you can," Deavers said.

Deavers said police receive far less training with Tasers than with service revolvers, which they fire 200 to 300 times at two separate sessions each year. Officers typically fire two Taser cartridges two times annually, he said, adding that a box of ammunition and a single Taser cartridge each cost the same -- $25.

Deavers said he has seen no evidence that Tasers have caused any heart problems among suspects, an accusation that has been raised in some jurisdictions.

The American Heart Association issued a study last year in its journal Circulation that concluded misuse of a Taser can lead to cardiac arrest and death.

Deavers said Taser International, the manufacturer of the devices, recommends avoiding shots around the heart.

"They prefer that not happen," Deavers said, adding that it is hard to control a Taser in a way that the prongs will always miss the heart.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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