Tasers in Iowa Beef up Courthouse Security

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Deputies patrolling the Johnson County Courthouse will soon have Taser guns as another layer of defense and security at the century-old facility, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said on Monday.

With federal block-grant funds, Pulkrabek purchased 26 stun guns a month ago. Deputy Sheriffs Dave Stanton and Sue Koshatka will be outfitted with Tasers as soon as training is complete, which Pulkrabek hopes would be by March 1.

"I think another less-than-lethal tool is something that is a benefit to have," Pulkrabek said about the Tasers, which cost roughly $28,000.

Tasers propel two probes at speeds of more than 160 feet per second, and an electrical signal is transmitted through insulated wire that connect the probes to the device. When the weapon makes contact with a person, there is an immediate loss of neuromuscular control and the ability to perform coordinated actions, according to the manufacturer of the gun.

The remaining stun-guns will be distributed to other officers in the sheriff's office. University of Iowa Public Safety officers have carried the devices since 2002, said Lawrence Langley, the department's associate director. Iowa city police Sgt. Doug Hart could not be reached Monday regarding his department's use of the weapons.

Though Pulkrabek said he did not consult courthouse employees about the Taser purchase, one worker said she welcomed the security measure.

"I would be more comfortable with them carrying those around and actually being able to use those to subdue somebody," said Lodema Berkley, the Johnson County clerk of court. "I still want them to have conventional guns, but if they had an actual gun, there could be more damage done."

But Tasers have sparked controversy in recent years. Amnesty International -- which has raised concern about the stun guns -- has tallied 114 Taser-related deaths since 2001, according to a July 2005 report on its website. In 15 of the cases, Taser use was cited as a contributing factor.

The weapon's use in the state has not been a key issue for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said Ben Stone, the organization's executive director. But use of the stun guns should be paired with careful monitoring and strict accountability, he said.

"If law enforcement misuses them, there should be consequences for that officer, up to and including dismissal from the force," Stone said.

Never should Tasers be used to inflict punishment, he added.

Pulkrabek said Taser use would be included in the department's current use-of-force policy, but he could not elaborate on specifics.

"All I can tell you is that less-than-lethal comes before deadly force and after verbal presence," he said.

The presence of Tasers erects another security shield for employees and patrons at the county courthouse, which has been plagued in the past by security deficiencies.

A walk-through metal detector is available when necessary, which has not been often, courthouse employees said. It was only last year the county placed full-time deputies inside the facility, and the courthouse also lacks permanent screening stations with metal detectors at entry points.

Chambers for district judges are also not secure, Berkley said. And, she estimates entry points to the courthouse are about "50 percent secure."

A new electronic key-card system would secure the courthouse and specific office areas within the facility but has not been activated, said county facilities manager David Kempf. He said he hopes to have the roughly $25,000 system in place and running before the spring.

But since deputies began patrolling the courthouse last year, employees have noted a decrease in irate patrons, and they also thank the deputies for arresting people on outstanding warrants or stepping in when tension escalates during contentious hearings.

And state officials are now giving attention to the security issue.

In his state of the judiciary address earlier this month, Chief Justice Louis Lavorato urged the state government to work with counties to bolster courthouse security around Iowa. A local lawmaker on Monday said Lavorato's speech may have piqued legislative attention.

"It gives it the profile it didn't have before," said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. "How that money is appropriated could be open to debate, but the need is definitely there."

Bolkcom has pushed for a specific fund for courthouse security. His legislative attempts, however, have failed, because of a lack of interest -- not all courthouses around the state face security dangers, and other issues compete for legislators' attention, the senator said.

Some county employees speculate that a new facility will not be needed to accommodate the screening stations, but all agree substantial renovations would be necessary. Neither the front nor back entrances, at present, would be able to house such a station, because of structural limitations.

County officials are mulling other options, such as a referendum or a sales tax, to pay for any extensive renovations or construction, county Supervisor Pat Harney said. Such decisions would be a part of a bigger project that includes the purchase of the lot adjacent to the courthouse and the construction of a new jail, he said.

Previously, local officials focused on implementing short-term fixes to security woes, but, Berkley said on Monday, county authorities will now probably investigate more permanent remedies, "as soon as there can be a chance that there'll be some money there."

"We're taking baby steps instead of going out for the big project," she said.

Information about Tasers

* Tasers are prohibited in Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.

* Law-enforcement agencies have bought more than 170,000 Tasers, since 1998. Citizens have bought more than 100,000, since 1994.

* Forty-three countries use Tasers.

(U-Wire -- 01/26/06)

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