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Buffalo police consider arming officers with Tasers

State investigators probing the death of an unarmed man by a Buffalo police officer noted last week that more than 15,000 law enforcement and military agencies use Tasers.

The Buffalo Police Department, they noted, "is not one of those agencies."

That could change.

The department recently began discussions about the possibility of more widely using Tasers.

As of now, the department's SWAT team has a couple of Tasers, said Capt. Jeff Rinaldo, a department spokesman.

But the department's interim commissioner, Byron Lockwood, has authorized Rinaldo to start looking into Tasers and the training that would be needed to use them, Rinaldo said.

Otherwise known as stun guns, the devices shoot prongs that deliver a 50,000-volt that can temporarily disable whoever is on the receiving end. Tasers are designed to offer a non-lethal, or at least less lethal, option for subduing an unruly or emotionally disturbed person.

The Buffalo Police Benevolent Association says it is open to discussing arming officers with Tasers, but it needs to be studied.

"I'd say we have a strong interest. It would be another tool for law enforcement that we don't have," said Detective Erin M. McCarthy, the PBA's first vice president. "We would be in favor of something that protects both the officer and the public from an incident escalating to a higher level."

State suggestion

In probing the death of Jose Hernandez-Rossy by a Buffalo police officer last year, investigators with the state Attorney General's Office also looked for ways the Police Department could prevent future fatal encounters.

Investigators included recommendations in its report on the death investigation released Thursday.

Among them: The Buffalo Police Department should consider equipping its officers with Tasers.

"While it is impossible to know what would have happened if either of the BPD officers had access to a Taser to subdue Mr. Hernandez-Rossy, studies have shown that outfitting officers with Tasers can significantly reduce injuries to suspects and officers alike," according to the report by the Attorney General's Office.

Former Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda opposed widespread introduction of Tasers in the patrol force because of deadly incidents involving the devices around the country.

McCarthy said there are studies on Tasers and  "some of them" indicate "it would be better to have them than not."

The Buffalo Common Council would have to vote to purchase the devices which can cost $1,000 or more apiece.

The department's lack of Tasers became an issue early last year after video of a Buffalo SWAT lieutenant using a patrol vehicle to pin an emotionally disturbed man surfaced on social media. No one at the scene had Tasers at the time of the incident. Police officials said then that Tasers likely wouldn't have worked because the man was wearing multiple layers of clothing. They also raised concerns about Tasers having deadly consequences.

Incidents across the state

Other major local police departments across the state – in New York City , Albany, Syracuse and Rochester – have issued Tasers to their police officers for years. They've also seen cases where Taser use turned fatal or resulted in lawsuits alleging excessive force.

The City of Syracuse last year agreed to pay $2 million to a disabled man who police "tasered and dragged off a bus for refusing to sit down" in 2013, according to the Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse.

In Rochester, Richard Gregory Davis, 50, a former Marine, father of six and grandfather of 11 died in 2015 after police and witnesses said he charged at officers and was Tased by police, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported.

In Albany, also in 2015, local police adopted new rules for Taser use restricting officers from using stun guns on the elderly, pregnant women and people who are handcuffed after Donald "Dontay" Ivy, 39, died after being Tasered by police as they were trying to take him into custody, the Times Union in Albany reported.

The New York Police Department, which has increased the number of Tasers it issues, reported that officers discharged their Tasers 501 times in 2016. One person died after being Tased, according to a report issued last year on use-of-force incidents.

'Another choice'

Pastor Kinzer Pointer of Agape Fellowship Baptist Church thinks it's time the Buffalo Police Department equips its officers with stun guns.

"That's a no-brainer," Pointer said.

He was among a group of local religious and community leaders who asked Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2015 for legislation that would mandate independent investigations of police-involved deaths of unarmed civilians. That led to Cuomo issuing an executive order that allows the state Attorney General to take over cases from local law enforcement agencies, such as the investigation into the deaths of Wardel Davis and Jose Hernandez-Rossy in Buffalo last year.

"We want police officers to have another choice when encounters with citizens escalate," Pointer said. "We would support all of the Buffalo Police Department having them, as long as they're trained in the use of them."

Several local law enforcement agencies have Tasers as well, including the Erie County Sheriff's Office and town  police departments in Amherst, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, and Orchard Park.

Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Tonawanda and Lackawanna are among the city police departments with Tasers.

Local departments that have Tasers say they've proved useful and effective.

Assistant Chief Charles Cohen of the Amherst Police Department offered an example from a couple of months ago when the police received a call about a suicidal man who had a gun.

"Fearing for the wife and kids, two of my guys jumped on him," Cohen said.

The officers struggled with the man until a third officer Tased the man, subduing him.

"It's not a perfect tool, but it is a nice less-than-lethal option," Cohen said.

The Orchard Park Police Department has about a dozen Tasers for its patrol officers, said Chief Mark Pacholec. His officers rarely have to use them, perhaps two or three times a year at most.

Pacholec pointed out that the devices, which look like bright yellow handguns, have two levels – a lower one that sends a quick zap and then the stronger one which shoots out the prongs that emit a five-second charge.

Tasers are a good option for officers, but are "not foolproof." The prongs can't get through multiple layers of clothes, which could cause problems during cold weather months.

"But if you don't have the options, then what are you left with?" Pacholec asked.

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