The Buffalo Police Department plans to issue about 25 Tasers to officers across the city under a 30-day pilot project, one they hope results in fewer suspects resisting arrest and being injured.
Buffalo police – who have shot three people, killing two, in five months – want to test whether putting a new weapon in officers' hands that is less lethal than a gun will help officers de-escalate situations and avoid using force.
However, a study released earlier this year of the Chicago Police Department's use of Tasers found that "there is no evidence that Tasers led to a reduction in police use of firearms." The study found that after Chicago equipped all of its officers with Tasers in 2010 there was a drop in police injuries, but not in the number or rate of civilians injured in confrontations with police.
The New York State Attorney General's Office in February recommended the department consider equipping its officers with the device in the wake of the fatal 2017 shooting of an unarmed man in Black Rock. At that time, Buffalo police brass said they would begin studying their options.
"I think it's a worthwhile tool," Buffalo Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo said Thursday.
Rinaldo said he would like to see whether the presence of Tasers helps convince suspects to comply with officers' commands instead of becoming violent.
Tasers are intended to be a "less lethal option" when police must use force, but they are not intended to supplant an officer's firearm, said Jon Shane, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Equipping officers with Tasers – which is an expensive endeavor, Shane said – is not without risk.
"If and when they can be deployed safely, they should be," he said.
Buffalo police are years behind many police departments when it comes to Tasers. The department had only a couple Tasers issued to its SWAT team as of earlier this year. Most major local police departments across the state, including Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and New York City, have deployed Tasers for years.
Reuters reported in 2017 that about 90 percent of U.S. police forces use Tasers.
The news agency said an investigation it conducted documented 1,005 incidents in the United States in which people died after police stunned them with Tasers, a number disputed by the equipment's manufacturer. In most of those cases, other types of force had also been used, Reuters reported.
Some departments have also faced lawsuits alleging excessive force and wrongful deaths involving Tasers.
In Buffalo, when the pilot project begins in roughly 30 to 45 days, Rinaldo expects each of the police department's five districts to receive at least four or five Tasers that would be shared among officers on all shifts, he said.
Axon, the company that manufactures Tasers, will allow the department to test the newest model – the Taser 7 – for free for a month, Rinaldo said. Buffalo will be among the first departments to test the weapon, he said.
Tasers fire darts attached to thin wires that deliver an electrical charge aimed at incapacitating the target.
Buffalo police officials were told the new Taser model fires darts at a higher speed and they can penetrate more deeply through clothing, which would allow for the weapon to be more effective in colder months when people tend to wear bulkier jackets and other heavy clothing.
If Buffalo police decide to issue Tasers to officers citywide, the department would have to change the type of pepper spray officers carry to a non-aerosol type, Rinaldo said. That different kind of pepper spray costs more than what the department currently buys, he said.
Natasha Soto, co-director of Black Love Resists in the Rust, a local social justice organization, said she was hesitant to put any faith into the possibility of the department getting Tasers.
Soto said she has concerns about the department's de-escalation tactics.
"The problem isn't the equipment the officers are carrying," she said. "The problem is how officers are relating to individuals, specifically black and brown folks."