Washington, DC — The U.S. Forest Service has bought $600,000 worth of “Electronic Control Devices” without any training program, rules for use or even a written explanation as to why the devices are needed, according to agency records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The devices, known as Tasers, are sitting in storage and cannot be issued because the agency has yet to develop a training course.
Due to an intense fire season, the Forest Service is now staggering under a more than a quarter-billion dollar deficit, causing it to begin jettisoning core programs. For example, the agency lacks enough funds to draw up new timber sales. At the same time, the Forest Service law enforcement program is hobbled by more than 200 vacant positions, leaving only one officer to cover each 300,000 acres of National Forest and 750,000 annual visitors.
In late September 2007, the Forest Service purchased 700 weapons and “related accessories” from Aardvark Tactical, Inc. of Azusa, California, a subsidiary of Taser International, at a cost to taxpayers of $600,001.52, according to agency records obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act. This represents enough to equip every single Forest Service special agent and law enforcement officer with an Electronic Control system at a cost of $857 apiece.
The reason for this purchase is unknown since the Forest Service was unable to produce any document justifying the need for these weapons. John Twiss, the Director of Law Enforcement and Investigations and the official who made the decision to buy the Tasers, wrote PEER in a letter dated November 7, 2007:
“[I]n the interest of customer service, we can tell you that the Forest Service is currently developing the required training and law enforcement officers will be required to attend prior to the issuance of, or authorization to carry or use, an Electronic Control Device.”
“There must have been a fire sale on Tasers, otherwise why would an agency buy 700 of them without a program, protocol or need?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the federal fiscal year ended September, around the time of the hurried single source purchase. “The Forest Service has many more pressing law enforcement priorities that should have received any end-of-fiscal-year surplus.”
In addition to the cost of training its entire law enforcement staff, the Forest Service may be assuming significant financial liability for injuries and deaths. In October, Amnesty International released a study estimating that 290 civilians have died from police use of Tasers since 2001.
Tasers are touted as a non-lethal alternative to the use of deadly force. Since Forest Service rarely is called upon to apply deadly force, the role of these electronic devices on national forest visitors is problematic. Nonetheless, Taser International now also equips the National Park Service.
“The proliferation of Tasers within federal land management agencies has all the earmarks of a mindless arms race that has eluded any thoughtful public or congressional review,” Ruch added. “As a result, in addition to the howl of the coyote and the hoot of the owl, the plaintive cry of ‘Don’t tase me, bro’ may soon echo through the forest night.”