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Editorial: Buffalo Police should consider using Tasers

Buffalo Police officials are doing the right thing by carefully considering widespread use of Tasers, and for good reason.

More than 15,000 law enforcement and military agencies already use the devices that, properly used, can restrain a suspect without causing lethal injuries. Jose Hernandez-Rossy could have been among them. State investigators probing the death of the unarmed man by a Buffalo police officer recommended the department consider its use.

Interim Police Commissioner Byron Lockwood is open to the suggestion, made by the state Attorney General, and has authorized Capt. Jeff Rinaldo to start exploring Tasers and the necessary training that would accompany their use. The study will reveal what is already widely known: it is no guarantee against tragedy.

Tasers, the brand name for a kind of stun gun, shoot prongs that deliver a 50,000-volt charge. It can temporarily disable its target. It is also seen as less lethal, although they have been associated with tragic incidents.

But one incident last May 7 in which a man died at the hands of a police officer has reignited the issue.

The State Attorney General’s Office determined that Buffalo Police Officer Justin P. Tedesco was wrong in believing that Jose Hernandez-Rossy, 26, had shot his partner. That error, which seems to have been made in good faith, quickly led to Hernandez-Rossy’s death.

The Attorney General’s Office found no evidence that Hernandez-Rossy had a gun or that one had gone off. The police officer’s partner was injured when he fought with Hernandez-Rossy inside Hernandez-Rossy’s car. It crashed into a house and the airbag deployed, possibly causing Tedesco to believe a gun had been fired.

State law and the U.S. Supreme Court precedent holds that law enforcement officers have the legal right to use deadly force when the officer “reasonably believes that such a fleeing individual has just committed a felony involving physical force against another person,” a recent News article quoted the AG’s Office.

No evidence supported criminal charges against Tedesco, the AG’s Office concluded after a nine-month investigation. But its report recommended that the Buffalo Police Department should consider equipping officers with Tasers.

Former Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda had opposed widespread introduction of Tasers in the patrol force. He was concerned, not incorrectly, about deadly incidents involving the devices around the country.

There are considerations. Tasers don’t work when someone is wearing multiple layers of clothing, as in the case last year when a Buffalo SWAT lieutenant used a patrol vehicle to pin an emotionally disturbed man. A video of that incident showed up on social media. A Taser might not have worked in that situation.

But they are a deterrent to suspects. And they provide accountability, since supervisors know when they have been used.

Major local police departments across the state using the devices include New York City, Albany, Syracuse and Rochester. Taser use has gone wrong. The City of Syracuse last year agreed to pay $2 million to a disabled man. Police reportedly “tasered and dragged” the man off a bus for refusing to sit down in 2013, according to The Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse. Three years ago in Rochester, Richard Gregory Davis, 50, a former Marine and father of six and grandfather of 11, died after police and witnesses said he charged at officers. He was tasered by police, according to the Democrat & Chronicle.

The New York Police Department reported officers discharged the devices 501 times in 2016. One person died, according to that department’s reports.

The dangers police officers face have changed, and so has the equipment available to them. The use of Tasers needs careful consideration, but so do the consequences of not using them.

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