(April 5, 2013) Although it put to rest this week the immediate decision over whether to allow the purchase of eight new Tasers, the City Council will likely still face an uphill battle with the underlying issue of worker’s compensation claims and how to handle the cost in a tight budget season.
Last week, the council delayed a decision to approve a budget change that would allow the Ocean City Police Department to use $11,400 in excess radio maintenance funds from its 2012-2013 budget allocation to buy eight more Electronic Control Devices (ECDs), popularly known by the Taser brand name.
The purchase, according to OCPD Capt. Greg Guiton, would equip eight officers who are trained and certified to carry ECDs but have none to deploy. Purchasing the devices with surplus funds from the current year would maximize the department’s ECD availability going into the busy summer season.
Since first piloting their use in October of 2011, Tasers have been reported by the OCPD to be highly effective in deterring aggressive or confrontational behavior in suspects and, when such behavior does occur, being able to subdue suspects with the least amount of physical force.
According to a presentation earlier this year, recorded assaults on OCPD officers fell 25 percent in 2012 versus 2011, a drop that the department’s leadership attributes largely to ECD usage. The department has 26 Tasers and would need 22 more to be at full strength.
But the council had questioned whether the OCPD’s surplus money for the current fiscal year couldn’t be rolled over into the next fiscal year, to help shore up the department’s operating expenses, which are projected to increase at a time when all of the city’s departments are facing a revenue crunch.
Councilman Brent Ashley, in particular, asked whether Tasers were worth their weight given the fiscal situation. Although the devices are intended to reduce injuries and costly worker’s compen-
sation claims sustained by officers, the OCPD’s worker’s compensation costs have actually been on the rise, Ashley said.
This week, Guiton and city Risk Manager Eric Lagstrom presented the council with numbers that both validated the effectiveness of Tasers as well as left some questions as to what other injuries officers may sustain.
According to Guiton, the OCPD recorded 53 incidents since the inception of ECDs in which an officer had to confront a suspect resisting arrest, but did not have a Taser available. In 25, or 47 percent, of those cases, the officer, suspect or both sustained some type of injury.
However, if one looks at all like incidents in which an officer did have a Taser, the injury rate lowered from 47 percent to 14 percent, Guiton said.
Lagstrom also submitted that four of the OCPD’s costliest compensation payouts, surveyed from the period of July 2009 to June 2012, were the result of physically restraining combative suspects. The combined cost of those cases was $117,574.
“We’ve definitely seen a decrease in the number of injuries reported, and to the severity of injuries,” Lagstrom said. “We still have officers injured in other areas.”
“I think [Tasers] have helped reduce worker’s compensation claims for like actions,” concurred Mayor Rick Meehan. “There are still claims for things like auto accidents [which Tasers would not help with].”
The council approved the purchase with five votes. Ashley and Councilwoman Margaret Pillas abstained from the vote, saying they would prefer to see the whole financial picture before making a decision.
“Nine days from now we’re going to start a budget process and I’d like to see where we are with spending money at that point,” Pillas said.
Despite settling the issue of the purchase itself, the question is still open as to what is causing an increase in the cost of officer injuries at the same time that Tasers are working to decrease them.
City Manager David Recor said he would be discussing the matter with the council at his initial budget presentation next week and would be looking into the best way to manage the city’s claims system. Currently, he said, the city pays compensation claims directly out of its general fund. But if the city were to purchase an insurance policy, and have its claims paid by a private carrier, there is a chance it could work out to the advantage of the city’s budget.