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Three deaths in one weekend puts Taser use by cops in crosshairs

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The current Taser debate hinges on when, not if, the stun guns should be used. Few disagree with the use of Tasers as an alternative to deadly force, but in some departments, officers can employ Tasers when someone is simply refusing to obey an order.

Tasers are often most used when police officers are dealing with unruly people who themselves are unarmed, but whose failure to comply with police instructions make officers to feel threatened. Most departments use the "billy club policy," which holds that Tasers are appropriate in any situation where an officer would otherwise pull and be ready to use a billy club, or night stick, which tends to lead to more serious injuries than a Taser.

Taser opponents point to the public outrage over the tasering of a fan at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, and various lawsuits documenting officers using Tasers on subdued, non-aggressive, or even handcuffed people. Tasers "can be used too much and too often," the National Institute of Justice found in its May report.

At the same time, some law enforcement officials have pushed back against setting higher standards for Taser use.

"Police chiefs are saying, don't write the standards so that it's going to take away decision-making ... when I write my own policies," says John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, in Doylestown, Pa. "The argument that Tasers should only be used when the use of deadly force is authorized is asinine."

After releasing an advisory in 2009 urging police not to shoot suspects in the chest, Taser International is now marketing the old version of its gun, which allows for only a five second blast of current before officers have to make the decision to hit the suspect again. A newer version of the gun allowed officers to apply continuous current, which the NIJ said in a separate May report has been associated with deaths.

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