Stun vest a tool against inmates in Saginaw County

 Vest is effective even when not deployed 

By Brad Devereaux
The Saginaw News

SAGINAW, Mich. (AP) — A new item the sheriff’s department bought may shock some people.

But only if they won’t comply with a verbal command first.

A new NOVA stun vest the department purchased for potentially dangerous defendants to wear in court is a way to stop an attack in its tracks before someone is injured. The vest is among several new acquisitions at the sheriff’s department, including a net gun and an armored truck.

“When we put the vest on, we’ll have the inmate understand, this is a shock vest,” Undersheriff Robert Karl told The Saginaw News. “Behave yourself.”

“It’s effective even if it isn’t deployed,” he added.

To people in the courtroom, a defendant wearing the vest will appear to be wearing normal clothes. Violent inmates are sometimes, but rarely, chained by the legs during a trial to provide some security and to avoid making the person appear guilty.

With the vest, “It will maintain a degree of security without saying, ‘that’s the guilty guy,’” Karl said.

The approximately $2,100 vest, paid for through a few different funding sources, is a tool to use for inmates the sheriff’s department believes might be uncooperative and violent in court.

Those inmates will be outfitted with the stun vest underneath their clothes. In the event that one tries to attack someone, officers will tell the defendant to stop before using a remote control to activate the vest, delivering 50,000 to 75,000 volts of electricity to four points on the defendant’s back for five to eight seconds.

A noise accompanies the shock so officers know it is going off. Someone hit with the stun vest would be incapacitated and officers would then handcuff them before sending them for medical attention. The vest may also be used for prisoner transports.

The shock is comparable to a “drive stun” of a Taser device, Karl said.

“Instead of having to put our hands on them and possibly get hurt, the minute they get up and we tell them verbal commands to stop,” Karl said, “the next step is to shock them.”

A battery pack is in a zippered pouch in back of the vest. A noise accompanying the shock would eliminate the possibility of a false positive, corrections officer Dave Bohl said.

The vest and a similar stun belt are examples of non-lethal force that officers prefer to use whenever possible, Saginaw County Sheriff William Federspiel said.

“People misbehaving in the courtroom, it does happen occasionally,” Federspiel said. “If you get somebody who knows they’re going to get life and they’ve got an attitude, we’ll use it.”

Lt. Randy Pfau said he could see using the vest on several occasions per month, noting its usefulness in a case when two co-defendants are hostile toward each other.

Two Saginaw defense attorneys have differing opinions of the stun vest.

Defense attorney Bill Street said he had never heard of a stun vest before, but said he was intrigued by the recent purchase.

He said the vest could help in rare instances for a defendant with a history of violence or a defendant making threats to provide a means of security while allowing the defendant to appear in plain clothes and as an “ordinary citizen” to a jury.

“This is something that might be respectful of the constitutional rights of an inmate if it can be worn under the clothes, for the rare unruly inmates,” he said.

He said he doesn’t believe it should be used routinely.

“If you really are dealing with...a sort of a Hannibal Lecter guy, somebody who has really demonstrated a history, you’ve got to worry about the guy suddenly becoming violent,” Street said.

“Because it is concealed from view, but it’s there and you use it if have to,” he said, “ may actually be a positive use of this technology.”

He also noted it should not be used to control behavior or as a torture device.

Saginaw defense attorney James Piazza said his initial thoughts were “It sounds like they’re going to start treating our clients like animals with shock collars.”

“Are they going to be trigger happy and use it with any outburst?” he questioned, noting he has seen some disruptions in the courtroom in his 35 years as an attorney, “but nothing to justify using it in this manner.”

He said the vest is a bad idea and the use of it ignores the fact that a defendant is presumed to be innocent.

“I think the opportunity for abuse of something like this far outweighs the need for it,” he said. “We put shock collars on dogs, not on people.”


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