Group rips cash-strapped Forest Service for purchasing Tasers

The U.S. Forest Service recently bought $600,000 worth of Tasers with no training program or written explanation for why it needed them, an organization of state and federal employees charged Tuesday.

According to documents acquired by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and posted on its Web site, the Forest Service acquired 700 of the electronic control devices for $857 each from a subsidiary of Taser International, enough to arm each of the agency's law enforcement officers.

The group criticized the September purchase, saying its recent Freedom of Information Act request shows the agency lacks a written justification for buying the devices and does not have rules governing their use. The weapons, which use electric currents to subdue violent or belligerent people, have become controversial in recent months because of widely publicized Taser-related deaths in Canada and the United States.

"This may cause long-term costs they have not considered, like training and liability," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. "The Tasers have to sit in a box for months and months ... [The Forest Service Law Enforcement division] must have had money burning a hole in their pocket at the end of the fiscal year."

Agencies with surplus funds often buy equipment near the year's end, fearing they will otherwise face a budget cut. The purchase comes as the Forest Service faces a large deficit because of a heavy fire season, causing it to cut back activities. Members of Congress from both parties also have complained about the agency's declining budgets, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and four other Democratic senators have lobbied appropriators for an increase in Forest Service accounts to help relieve a $10 billion backlog in road maintenance that they say is "harming America's drinking water, watersheds and wildlife."

A Forest Service spokesman said no Tasers will be given to officers until they are trained in their use. He referred calls to John Twiss, the agency's director of law enforcement and investigations, who was not immediately available.

But the Forest Service and the National Park Service, which has equipped its officers with Tasers, have pointed to a crime surge on public land, with assaults on officers and drug smuggling increasing. Twiss said in October that Tasers would give officers policing national forests an option short of deadly force in certain situations. Ruch dismissed that notion, noting that the Forest Service hardly ever uses lethal force. He questioned whether tasers would be an effective response to drug smugglers and said one of main challenges now faced by Forest Service officers is illegal off-road vehicles.

"I'm not sure how you can use a Taser on mounted ORVs unless you throw it at them," he said.

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