ELLSWORTH, Maine — As the use of the illegal drug known as bath salts spreads into smaller towns in Maine, more rural law enforcement agencies are considering whether to acquire Tasers to combat the problem.
The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department got the go-ahead from county commissioners this past week to acquire Tasers for its patrol officers, while the top police official in Lincoln is considering whether to ask the local Town Council for the same approval.
Bath salts, which were banned in Maine earlier this year, are designer drugs that typically contain mephedrone or methylenedioxypyrovalerone, also known as MDPV. The drug, which is not banned in some states and is sometimes marketed as plant fertilizer, resembles cocaine and mimics the effects of methamphetamine. The drug can be snorted, smoked, eaten or injected and, according to officials, can cause users to experience paranoia, hallucinations, convulsions and psychotic behavior.
This past week, Hancock County commissioners granted a request from the Sheriff’s Department to spend $12,600 on eight new Tasers for their patrol officers. Tasers shoot barbs, attached by wires to batteries, that incapacitate people by sending electrical charges through their bodies and nullifying their muscular control, according to police.
According to Lt. Pat Kane of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, he and his fellow officers have seen an increase over the past two or three months in the amount of emergency calls they have received because of people acting dangerously while on bath salts. More traditional means that police have used in dealing with people who might harm others or themselves, such as pepper spray or batons, frequently don’t work with people having bath salts-caused psychotic episodes, he said. People on the drug have shown less sensitivity to pain and unusual surges of strength, according to police officers who have encountered such situations.
Kane said he reported to one incident recently in which a woman in her 20s was having an episode. She had become violent and showed no signs of recognizing relatives or acquaintances, he said.
“I put a restrain hold on her that would start a 300-pound man crying,” Kane said.
The police officer let go, he added, because the hold had no effect in subduing the woman.
“I was afraid I was going to break this person’s arm,” he said.
Kane said the department likely will use the devices in other situations, such as when someone is threatening others with a knife or another type of hand weapon, but that the spread of bath salts into Hancock County is what convinced county officials to acquire Tasers.
County commissioners approved the request on Oct. 4, but the department has yet to acquire the Tasers, Kane said. He said he hopes to have them in the hands of patrol officers by the end of the calendar year.
In Lincoln, Police Chief William Lawrence said Tuesday that he is considering getting Tasers for his officers for the same reason.
Lawrence, whose department lacks Tasers, said he may ask the Lincoln Town Council to appropriate police asset-forfeiture funds, money derived from property police legally seize in connection with drug crimes, to buy several Tasers. His is still researching the issue.
The lack of Tasers “is a concern for us in Lincoln and it has become more of a concern because of our dealings with people on bath salts. The Taser gives us another tool to utilize before we have to think about [the use of] deadly force,” Lawrence said Tuesday.
Unlike a police baton, most Tasers employ electrified projectiles that when shot into a suspect’s skin can stun and incapacitate that person while he is as much as 15 feet away from an officer being threatened, affording police greater safety, Lawrence said. Police batons are effective but require being within arm’s reach of a suspect to be effective.
Another nondeadly-force weapon police typically use, pepper spray, can be shot at a suspect from the same range and stun and incapacitate almost as effectively, but is not as accurate as a Taser. Pepper spray is more prone to mishaps caused by conditions such as wind, Lawrence said.
Police use guns with the understanding that they are deadly-force weapons, not tools to incapacitate, and should be used when officers believe their lives or the lives of others are being threatened.
Guns should be used not to kill but to safely end threats of deadly force that, depending on an officer’s judgment, can be represented by things ranging from a suspect’s physical prowess to a tool or weapon a suspect might be carrying, according to the chief.
Tasers, Lawrence said, should be used to incapacitate, and are effective tools.
“I come from the Bangor Police Department, where we had them and [I] found them to be very efficient,” Lawrence said. “I have seen them come out in situations and prevent injuries with officers.
“I can see the need and I think it is just, but we are not quite ready to do that [pursue buying Tasers] here. We are still evaluating,” the police chief added.
If he does seek Tasers, Lawrence would raise the issue with Town Manager Lisa Goodwin before seeking council permission to transfer the funds, he said.
Officers with other law enforcement agencies in eastern Maine who already have Tasers said Tuesday that they have had few situations in which they’ve had to use the devices on bath salts users, despite the spread of the drug. But in situations where other tools or techniques don’t work, whether the situation involves bath salts or not, Tasers can prove useful, they said.
In Ellsworth, the 14 patrol officers, sergeants and detectives with the local Police Department all are equipped with Tasers, according to Ellsworth police Lt. Harold Page. Ellsworth officers have dealt with five or six bath salts incidents so far, none of which escalated to the point where officers had to resort to Tasers, he said. But Page believes they are an effective tool since some individuals high on bath salts do not respond to pain.
“The Taser interrupts their muscular control,” Page said. “So whether they can feel pain or not, they will stop whatever they were doing.”
In Bangor police have used Tasers on people high on bath salts, according to Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards, but he said expansion of the drug’s use into Bangor over the past year has not resulted in local officers using Tasers more frequently than they did before. He said the department has approximately a dozen Tasers, which is enough to equip all on-duty officers in normal staffing situations, and is not considering getting more.
“It’s happened a few times,” Edwards said of Bangor officers using a Taser on a bath salts user.
When Bangor police officers have used Tasers on people high on bath salts, Edwards said, it is only after other methods of subduing them have been unsuccessful. Tasers are never used as a first option, but are useful when someone is not responding to police commands and cannot be brought under control by other means, he said.
“It’s a very useful tool,” he said. ”It’s a good option for anything.”
Sometimes people high on bath salts are taken to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor to be treated for psychosis, according to emergency room physician Dr. Paul Reinstein. To help make sure these patients don’t pose a threat to others while they are being treated, he said, the hospital has a local police officer on duty in the ER seven nights a week. The hospital has a Taser in the ER in case a patient becomes combative, he said, but only the police officer is authorized to used the device in such situations.
Reinstein said the only incident of which he was aware in which a bath salts user had to be subdued with a Taser at EMMC occurred in August when a Bangor man tried to grab a Bangor police officer’s gun as he was being arrested upon his release from the hospital.
But that lone incident should not be interpreted to mean that bath salts use has had a negligible effect on the hospital’s resources. Reinstein said emergency room medical personnel at EMMC have seen a noticeable increase in the number of psychosis visits to the hospital because of the spread of bath salts.
“We see lots, every day,” the physician said.
UPDATE: Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison did not reply Tuesday in time to have her comments included in the initial version of this story, but she responded Wednesday morning via email. Here is what she wrote on the issue:
“Yes we are getting increased cases of people we believe to be on bath salts.
No we do not have Tasers.
Yes we are interested in getting Tasers due to the erratic unpredictable episodes of bath salt users.
I believe you shall find most agencies already have Tasers. I am not an advocate for Tasers, however with the increased violent and unpredictable threat of bath salts I realize we have to take steps to safely resolve these issues. We have been very fortunate thus far that no one has been hurt. A non-lethal means of getting these people under control without harm to them or law enforcement is preferred by all.”
BDN staff reporters Nick Sambides Jr. and Kevin Miller contributed to this report.
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter (@billtrotter) on Twitter.