Mar. 31—BOSTON — Police use of stun guns and Tasers dropped in 2019 for the first time in years, according to a new report, which shows the decline comes as more officers are trained to use the devices.
Police agencies in Massachusetts reported 1,386 incidents involving electronic weapons in 2019 — down 8.3% from the prior year, according to the data newly released by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
At least 727 of those cases escalated to the point where a Taser or stun gun was fired at a suspect, according to the data.
The 2019 data, the most recent available, represented the first yearly decline in incidents since 2010, when the agency began tracking use of the weapons by police.
Statewide, 286 agencies are authorized to use electronic control weapons, and 8,766 such weapons were in use in 2019.
That's up from 123 agencies and 1,656 weapons just eight years ago, according to the state's data.
The agency doesn't speculate on why the number of incidents declined, and law enforcement experts say they aren't sure of the reason.
"It could be that officers are getting more comfortable with the weapons and trained on use," said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "Or, maybe, it's possible we just had a good year."
Leahy noted that police officers have been reluctant to use force against suspects in recent years amid fallout over racially charged shootings involving police.
Even so, agencies are increasingly turning to electronic weapons which, used properly, can prevent death and injury.
When fired, Tasers shoot two spear-shaped probes that penetrate the skin. Copper wires attached to the probes emit a 50,000-volt shock, forcing muscles to seize and usually sending the person collapsing to the ground.
Other stun guns must touch an individual's skin or clothes but also deliver a debilitating shock.
The increasing use of the electronic devices by law enforcement in other states has raised concerns by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which argue that minorities are disproportionately targeted.
Overall, law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts have reported more than 10,000 incidents involving the use of electronic weapons from 2010 to 2019, according to state data.
Locally, Lawrence reported one of the highest numbers of incidents in the state in during that nine-year time frame, or 290.
Methuen police reported 84 incidents involving stun guns during that period; Peabody 62, Beverly 31 and Andover 16, according to state data.
State police have reported at least 318 incidents involving electronic weapons since 2010, the data shows.
To be sure, police aren't the only ones increasingly arming themselves with electronic weapons.
Civilians have been able to legally possess Tasers and stun guns in Massachusetts since 2018, when lawmakers added them to a list of regulated weapons.
The move followed a ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court overturning a ban on electronic weapons.
The state doesn't track individual sales of stun guns and couldn't say how many have been sold to date.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com