BANGOR, Maine — Without objection, the Bangor City Council voted Monday to accept funding from Eastern Maine Medical Center to purchase an electronic control device that city police officers can use to subdue unruly patients inside the emergency room.
The request, first approved last week by a city subcommittee, has generated significant public debate about the need for the devices, commonly called Tasers, in clinical settings. The idea was prompted from a recent incident in which an EMMC nurse was attacked by a patient with a knife.
Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia said, in his mind, he sees no difference between an officer carrying a Taser as standard issue equipment or having the weapon stored at the hospital. The problem, he said, is that the city’s police department does not have the resources to provide Tasers to all officers who might be assigned to the EMMC emergency room.
“This is not about the hospital,” the chief said Monday. “It’s about our officers. We’d rather they use Tasers than a firearm.”
Some opponents of the idea, including resident Nick Bearce, voiced their opinion to the City Council. He pointed to a study by Amnesty International that has tracked more than 350 deaths worldwide that have been attributed to Tasers used by police officers.
“The testing on these is incomplete,” he said. “The only ones testing are the people selling them … or the police departments.”
Bearce said he was surprised the hospital, which also runs a mental health facility, broached the idea at all.
“This is the best they can come up with?” he said. “That scares me a little bit.”
Mark Joyce, a lawyer representing the local chapter of the federally funded Disability Rights Center, agreed that more research should be done before the city considers keeping a Taser at EMMC.
“It’s not as black and white as they don’t hurt people,” he said.
City councilors disagreed and said the safety of hospital staff and other patients is at stake.
Councilor Pat Blanchette said a lot of misinformation has been distributed about what Tasers do and don’t do. Councilor Rick Bronson pointed out that Bangor police officers are trained extensively in crisis intervention so that Tasers are a last resort.
Gastia said that in 2008, his officers used a Taser 11 times — including once at EMMC and once at St. Joseph Hospital. So far in 2009, officers have used a Taser 12 times, including twice at EMMC. Gastia said he is not aware of any lasting injuries associated with the use of Tasers by his officers.
A police officer is assigned to the ER at EMMC from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day. With the City Council approval, the Taser will be locked at the hospital when the officer is not on duty but kept holstered during the duty shift.
The weapon, when discharged, shoots two probes into the skin of the target. The probes remain attached to the weapon, which then releases a 50,000-volt electrical charge for about five seconds.
Gastia said, when used properly, the Taser is an effective tool.