Standing guard over criminals in custody is surely one of the most stressful jobs in public service. Franklin County Jailer Billy Roberts once called enhancement of retirement benefits for his staff nearly irrelevant because few stayed around long enough to collect their pensions.
The jailer says things have gotten even worse lately with increased levels of inmate violence posing new challenges for deputies. He called on Fiscal Court last week to arm key officers with Tasers – electric shock devices that temporarily immobilize aggressive individuals – and the court voted 6-1 to go along with the idea.
“I’m tired of my officers getting hurt,” Roberts said.
We certainly agree with giving correctional officers a means of protecting themselves in a dangerous environment, especially if that defensive weapon is truly non-lethal, as Tasers are supposed to be. However, abundant caution is advisable in deployment of a device that doesn’t necessarily get the job done without inflicting harm on the “Tased.”
The lone dissenting vote came from Judge-Executive Ted Collins, a former sheriff who ought to know something about the pros and cons of self-defense options available to law-enforcement personnel. He’s not so sure Tasers are as benign as proponents believe. Of special concern to the county, which has a checkered history of jail litigation, is the potential liability. Collins said he could not support Tasers for jail deputies without getting advice from county government’s insurers.
There’s little question that personnel in all phases of law enforcement, from police and sheriff’s deputies on the road to guards in corrections facilities, are at greater risk nowadays. Earlier this year, Sheriff Pat Melton told The State Journal he had advised his deputies to take extra precautions after three corrections officers at the Franklin County Regional Jail were bitten by prisoners allegedly under the influence of “bath salts,” a synthetic drug then being sold, more or less openly, at local convenience stores. Substances developed in undercover laboratories have produced new variants on old narcotics that are even more problematic than the originals in some ways, producing psychotic behavior with potentially deadly consequences both for users and people who come in contact with them. In one incident, a nearly naked man high on “bath salts” fell through the ceiling of the Frankfort Regional Medical Center after he disappeared upon being released by the hospital.
Tasers could help jail officers cope with erratic prisoners, but the hazards are real. The American Civil Liberties Union questioned the devices’ safety following incidents in which targeted persons have died or suffered serious injuries. Roberts told Fiscal Court the jail would attempt to address these concerns through a policy that limits Taser use to shift commanders and assistants, officers transporting inmates and certain members of the Corrections Emergency Response Team. The policy forbids use on pregnant inmates or to awaken a sleeping or intoxicated prisoner. The stun guns would be reserved for controlling persons who exhibit “either active resistance or aggressive resistance to lawful orders.”
The intention of protecting officers at minimal risk to inmates is commendable. But we’d feel better if the county cleared this new policy with its insurance carrier, as the judge-executive suggested.