The parents of an 8-year-old South Dakota girl want the police officer who stunned their daughter with a Taser disciplined, but the police chief said Wednesday that the officer acted properly and may have saved the little girl's life.
Pierre Police Chief Bob Grandpre told Dakota Radio Group News that the incident happened Friday night after a baby-sitter called to report that the girl had stabbed herself in the leg and was making comments about suicide.
The girl — whose identity hasn't been released because she is a juvenile — was holding a 4½-inch knife and refused to put it down when the three officers arrived, he said.
Grandpre said the child had the tip of the knife to her chest and then moved toward a hallway that could have taken her out of the officers' sight, posing a potential threat.
When one of the officers approached her, the girl pointed the knife at the officer and then back at herself, Grandpre said. That's when the officer used the Taser, whose prongs lodged in her chest and stomach, Grandpre said.
"We have a juvenile that's threatening to kill themselves, and we have very few options that they had to run through, so they made the decision to disarm the juvenile for the safety of all involved," he said. "Our initial review is it looks like we followed our department policy and training."
The girl — who medical personnel said showed no stab wounds on her leg — was observed for a few hours and released to the custody of her parents. The conduct of the officer — who also hasn't been identified — remains under review and he remains on the job.
Grandpre told the Argus Leader newspaper of Sioux Falls that "we can't control if the threat is 8 or 80" and said the Taser was the least forceful way to get the girl under control.
"He quite possibly saved the juvenile's life that night," he told the newspaper.
But the girl's parents were incensed, saying they were considering suing the police department.
The girl's mother, Dawn Stenstrom, said her daughter, who was being supervised by a babysitter that night, was merely playing around with a small paring knife.
"How much harm could she have done?" Stenstrom asked in an interview with the Argus-Leader, adding that the girl had never before had to be physically restrained.
Bobby Jones, the girl's father, told the newspaper: "Tasers are for grown adults, not 8-year-old girls. They say it was for her own safety, but there is no justification for that.
"Her acting out got her tased," he said.
Grandpre said in the radio interview that he had spoken with both parents and understood their concerns.
"As a parent, I get that," he said. "This is an unusual set of circumstances."
The chief confirmed that Pierre police had never before used a Taser on someone so young and added: "I understand why there's a lot of attention to this, and there should be."
"We don't get to choose the situations we get called to, and the officers do the best they can when they are to make sure there's a positive outcome," he said.
Tasers — which aren't classified as firearms and regulated under federal weapons laws — use a brief jolt of high electrical current to incapacitate a subject. They're considered among law enforcement agencies to be a much safer and less-forceful way to subdue a subject than traditional firearms.
But in a 2011 report on police use of Tasers and other so-called nonlethal weapons (.pdf), the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice said Taser safety data "may not be applicable to small children." It said using Tasers on children "should be avoided, but may be necessary if conditions exclude other reasonable choices."