Port Townsend Council opts to buy 16 police stun guns

Police chief: Safe alternative to lethal force

Tom Olson

Tom Olson

PORT TOWNSEND — After holding off on the decision earlier this month, the Port Townsend City Council has authorized spending $52,200 on a stun gun “certification bundle,” a package of 16 stun guns for the city’s police department.

The members, unanimous in the decision during their meeting Monday night, heard a short presentation by Police Chief Tom Olson — his first to the council — about why he sought the purchase.

Electroshock stun guns are a tool of de-escalation and a safe alternative to using lethal force, he said, but the ones carried by the Port Townsend police are badly in need of replacement.

“Our current (stun guns) have expired through their warranty,” Olson said. “They are no longer working … they have screens on them that have gone black.”

On Nov. 1, the City Council considered the package, to be purchased from the Axon company. But members Ariel Speser, Pamela Adams and Amy Howard questioned it. Howard asked how often stun guns are deployed in Port Townsend, while Speser expressed a wish that the city could re-prioritize its public safety funding.

“Imagine a world where we spend $50,000 on mental health,” she said.

At Monday’s council meeting, Speser and Howard both spoke up about having changed their minds.

“I was able to speak with Chief Olson earlier this week at some length,” said Speser, adding the conversation convinced her stun guns are needed.

Howard, for her part, said she did research that led her to conclude stun guns are safer than “batons, fists, takedowns, tackles or impact munitions.” Nothing is foolproof, she said, but this is a safer alternative.

“When I was in Seattle, we had an individual with two knives,” Olson told the council. “As we got him cornered, we had firearms pointed at him,” but he didn’t comply.

“We (used a stun gun on him) him,” and the man dropped to the ground. “No officers were hurt. The individual was not hurt either.”

Olson came to Port Townsend in May after serving as a deputy chief in the University of Washington Police Department.

“The number 16 is about having all of our commissioned officers have that less-lethal option” of a stun gun available, he told the council.

The Port Townsend Police Department has had stun guns for nearly 20 years, Olson added.

“Every other department around us also has this option,” he said.

Both the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Sequim Police Department told the Peninsula Daily News that their officers carry stun guns. Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said his department has used them since 2002.

Adams asked Olson about other “less-lethal options,” such as batons and pepper spray.

The baton “is really not used,” he said, adding in his 30 years in law enforcement, he’s never struck anybody with one.

Officers carry pepper spray, but it’s less than optimal in a confined space. “Numerous other people are going to be impacted,” Olson said.

In an interview Tuesday, Olson said a stun gun’s electrical current locks up the muscles in the body for “five seconds you never want to go through again.” The threat of being hit with electrical shock, he said, can be enough to get a suspect to comply with an officer’s commands.

While Axon calls its stun guns weapons, Olson uses a different term.

“It’s a tool,” he said, “that is very effective in reducing the need to use lethal force.”

The chief added that his training, and the initial training of any officer who will use a stun gun, includes having one used on them.

“When you (use a stun gun) on somebody, you can get down on them and grab their arms,” he said, adding “it works very well in crowds, when there’s just one person who needs to be contacted. We can use that tool from 20 feet away,” unlike pepper spray.

Olson said it will take about six weeks for the new stun guns to arrive. He’s also in the process of hiring two police officers to fill openings on the force. Port Townsend currently has 13 commissioned officers, he said, with a plan to be fully staffed at 15 officers by late 2022.

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Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsuladailynews.com.

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