Keene police officers are an exception in the Monadnock Region because they do not carry Tasers — stun guns that can zap offenders into submission.
But that doesn’t mean the city officer who shot and killed a man during a standoff last week would’ve used a Taser if he had one.
In the wake of the Feb. 2 shooting, questions have surfaced about whether Officer Joshua English and other officers who were with him could have used non-lethal weapons to diffuse the tense situation.
The Attorney General’s Office concluded in a preliminary investigative report of the incident that English, who joined the Keene police force in August 2004, was justified in pulling the trigger.
Hinsdale police Lt. Todd Faulkner is a court-recognized Taser expert who has provided stun-gun training to nearly every officer in the region who has the device.
Faulkner said officers are told to meet deadly force with deadly force. They should not bring a Taser to a situation involving a gun or knife, he said.
“The Taser is not the appropriate tool if you have a hostage and someone with a knife,” he said. “The Taser is extremely effective when deployed correctly. However, it shouldn’t be used in dynamic, deadly force situations.”
Tasers can come in handy when an officer is trying to arrest someone who’s combative or uncooperative. Instead of getting into a fight or using pepper spray, which can clear out an entire room or blow back into an officer’s face, the officer can subdue the troublesome person with a quick shock.
Keene Police Chief Kenneth J. Meola believes stun guns are effective tools, but said the city cannot afford to equip its 46 officers with the devices.
Police-grade Tasers cost about $800. Add another $22 for each cartridge and it would cost about $40,000 to equip the city’s officers with Tasers.
But that’s only the tip of the cost iceberg.
“It’s not just the initial cost. It’s the training and retraining costs,” Meola said. “We’ve looked at Tasers and they’re a very expensive tool to have. We have to prioritize our needs and training dollars and, at this point, getting Tasers hasn’t proven to be something we can do.”
English shot Charles E. Turcotte, 39, in the head while Turcotte was crouched on a bed behind his ex-girlfriend, Hae Kyong Whitcomb, also 39. Turcotte was holding a knife with an 8-inch blade against her throat, according to Attorney General Michael A. Delaney.
English and two other officers, including a hostage negotiator, tried to reason with Turcotte before the shooting, Delaney said. But Turcotte refused to drop the knife or release Whitcomb and he became increasingly agitated as the clock ticked, Delaney said.
English was armed with his department-issued AR-15 rifle. Another officer in the room had a shotgun loaded with rubber ammunition, which was never fired.
“Simply because we have something doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for every situation,” Meola said. “We bring it because it’s an option in our use-of-force continuum. We would never just go into a hostage situation with less-lethal rounds.”
Faulkner, who has been trained to use less-lethal ammunition, also said rubber bullets should never be used as an officer’s only option during a potentially deadly situation.
As for Tasers, he said the devices are extremely difficult to use in cramped locations. And if the device malfunctions, the intended target could easily rush and kill the officer who fired the Taser, he said.
A Taser has a range of 35 feet and fires two prongs at about 165 feet per second, but both prongs must hit the target and stay secured before the device can deliver a debilitating 50,000 volts of electricity.
“That officer has to be sure that when he pulls the trigger, both darts hit the target,” Faulkner said. “If that doesn’t happen, the Taser is ineffective. Then you could be facing a man with a knife, and that is a very volatile, deadly situation.”
When dealing with someone who’s armed, officers are trained to stay about 50 feet from the person, if possible, according to Faulkner.
The Spruce Street shooting occurred in a small bedroom, where English and two other officers were standing about 8 feet from Turcotte and Whitcomb.
During the standoff, English had his rifle pointed at Turcotte, who authorities said was shielding his body with Whitcomb.
“When you have someone hiding behind any object that could impede the Taser probes, you are in a situation where you could have Taser failure,” Faulkner said. “In that kind of situation, common sense would dictate that the Taser is not the right tool.”
Despite the limitations of stun guns, Faulkner said he couldn’t imagine being without one.
“Absolutely not,” he said.