Should a moratorium be declared on the Taser?
Absolutely, says Amnesty International, the activist human rights organization, which has called for a cease fire in the use of “stun technology in law enforcement” until the true risk to targeted suspects can be thoroughly researched and verified.
Nonsense, says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center (FSRC) at Minnesota State University-Mankato. Even a temporary ban on the use of Tasers, Lewinski asserts, “would literally create a catastrophe for peace officers. Lawsuits would increase, officer injuries would increase, subject injuries would increase-all guaranteed. We need additional research, but we don’t need to stop using a unique tool that experience has proven is effective and overwhelmingly safe while more investigation is underway.”
A prominent litigation attorney who assesses risk-management issues facing law enforcement agencies emphatically agrees. Bill Everett, a veteran use-of-force trainer and a litigation management attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities, which provides lawsuit defense, policy guidance and liability insurance coverage to more than 800 municipalities, told Force Science News (FSN):
“A moratorium on the Taser would have a consequence.” And that consequence, he insists, would be “a more robust and frequent use of deadly force” as the most likely alternative for controlling threatening offenders. “It is irresponsible and unconscionable, based on what we know today” about the Taser, to advocate a policy that would result in “taking people’s lives rather than subjecting them to a transitory experience” of physical immobilization.
Everett says calling for a ban because a relative handful of suspects have died after Taser use, with no direct causation having been established, “is somewhat like saying, ‘I heard of a guy who drowned in a car because he couldn’t get his seatbelt off, so we should outlaw seatbelts.’”
Everett, who is a member of FSRC’s National Advisory Board and a former LEO, recently addressed the growing Taser controversy in a closed-door meeting of more than 70 of the country’s top governmental risk managers. His comments included these observations, which he shared with FSN:
- The Taser is a “device that generally is very, very effective at reducing injury to officers and subjects.”
- ”In the rarest and most unpredictable circumstances, it MAY cause unintentional consequences,” although the allegation that it can cause death has not yet been scientifically proven.
- ”People are dying in custody at about equal rates, whether they were ‘tased’ or not.” A more common factor than the Taser in many of these fatalities, Everett notes, appears to be “excited delirium,” a major systemic stressor believed to be produced by a toxic cocktail of high agitation, unusual exertion, drug use and possible predisposed physical vulnerabilities.
- A department’s “liability decision” about Taser use “becomes one of ‘on balance am I willing to accept a risk [of unfavorable results] that is profoundly small and unquantifiable in exchange for proven results that are overwhelmingly beneficial.’”
- While pointing out that he is “not in the business of giving specific recommendations,” as a law enforcement manager (which he was earlier in his career), “I would continue using the Taser,” based on “a risk/benefit analysis” of its track record to date.
Amnesty International’s call for a Taser moratorium by all law enforcement agencies is included in a lengthy report it issued on Nov. 30. The document expresses concern that “stun technology” promoted as harmless may, in fact, be “excessive and lethal force” because of 74 deaths that the organization says have occurred after Taser use. You can read the report in full at:
Both Lewinski and Everett, as well as other prominent law enforcement voices, agree with AI that “urgent rigorous, independent and impartial” research into the use and effects of electro-shock weapons should be vigorously pushed forward. Indeed, a variety of such research projects are already underway or proposed in the United States and Canada.
What is alarming, besides AI’s call for an immediate and blanket moratorium, are some of the policies it recommends regarding Taser deployment in the event a moratorium is not imposed or agencies refuse to voluntarily suspend Taser use. These recommendations reflect a profound misunderstanding of the Force Continuum and of the control challenges officers face on the street.
A concern Everett expresses is that politicians and the media may be tempted to advocate these recommendations, to the ultimate disadvantage to law enforcement and disservice to the public.
For example, AI recommends that:
- Taser use be strictly limited to situations such as “armed stand-offs, instances in which a police officer faces a life-threatening attack or injury, or threat of attack with a deadly weapon, or where the target presents an immediate threat of death or serious injury to him/herself or others,” and then only if “less extreme measures are ineffective or without a promise of achieving the intended result.”
- “Unarmed suspects should not be shot with a Taser…unless they pose an immediate threat of death or serious injury that cannot be controlled through less extreme measures.”
- Taser use should be prohibited against a wide variety of offender categories, including EDPs and persons under the influence of drugs, as well as the elderly and children. Moreover, “where officers have reason to believe that a disturbed individual may be acting in a violent or threatening manner as a result of mental illness, efforts should be made to involve mental health specialists” in resolving the situation and “policing methods based on force should be used only as a last resort.”
- “Tasers should only be used in stun gun mode as a back-up to dart-firing Tasers and only when no other options are available and there is an immediate threat of death or serious injury.”
In other words, in formulating these recommendations AI is considering the Taser to be very close to if not equivalent to a firearm.
This, Lewinski charges, “is insane,” based on the current experience with and knowledge about the device. Adds Everett: “If we restrict the Taser to a very limited subclass of cases, then the consequence of this is going to be officers hitting uncontrolled people more with batons, breaking more bones and tearing more flesh. You’ll have a whole bunch of cops and arrestees hurt very, very badly who don’t need to be.”
In Lewinski’s professional opinion, the Taser should be placed on the Force Continuum above OC and below the baton. He agrees with Everett that “the potential for inflicting injury with a baton is much greater.”
Contrary to AI’s recommendations, street sense dictates that the Taser should NOT be relied upon when an officer is facing an immediate life-threatening situation. “The proper weapon response in those cases,” Lewinski stresses, “is with a gun.”
Even when no lethal threat is perceived or anticipated, good officer-survival tactics require the use of Contact/Cover when a Taser is activated. One officer deploys the Taser and his or her backup is ready to deploy an alternate and appropriate force response in the event the device is ineffective and/or the threat escalates to a deadly level.
Officers have suffered severe injuries by relying too heavily on Tasers in the absence of backup. One Iowa case in which Lewinski testified during grand jury proceedings involved a paranoid schizophrenic who was delivering karate kicks and chops against a telephone pole. The subject walked toward a lone responding officer, raving at him in “Klingon language.”
When the suspect pulled a knife from his rear waistband, the officer attempted to stop him by firing a Taser. The suspect pulled the barbs out, rushed the officer and knocked him flat. The attacker was astride the officer, stabbing repeatedly at the officer’s chest, when backup showed up and shot the assailant dead. All that saved the officer from fatal wounds was the trauma plate in his vest.
“Good as the Taser is, it is not perfect,” Lewinski says. “Tasers fail more often than guns jam. When your life is on the line, your best option in most cases will be deadly force. The Taser is for a lower level of response to a lower level of danger.”
In some parts of the country, strong emotions have been stirred among civilians by the use of Tasers to control offenders who were children or elderly. In Florida, where the device was used, without known injury, in separate incidents against a 6-year-old and a 12-year-old, a county commissioner declared this week that she was “shaken,” “angry,” and “appalled” and would “go ballistic” if someone used the weapon on her 6-year-old grandchild. In South Carolina recently, the media headlined the fact that a Taser was used against a 75-year-old woman during an altercation at a nursing home.
“In a confrontation,” Lewinski explains, “you don’t look at age, sex, height, weight-you need to look at behavior, the violence and potential violence you’re encountering. A 6-year-old in a complete psychotic temper tantrum can really hurt you. Unlike some mental health workers, cops don’t have training in methods of restraint that won’t significantly injure the kid or open the officer up to severe injury. If you do a simple arm bar on an elderly woman with fragile bones and she resists in even a minimal way, it’s almost a given that you will create a spiral fracture of her upper arm bone.”
Yes, it’s ugly when someone gets zapped with an electronic device, and in the case of the elderly they may still break bones from falling after being tased. “But in many confrontations the Taser remains the most humane and effective way of establishing control without serious injury to anyone.”
There’s no doubt, Lewinski says, that more “really solid, scientific research” is needed-on human beings, not just on animals-”to help us better understand when and how to use Taser devices. How do these really work? How does their application affect blood chemistry, cell damage and intramuscular bleeding, if at all? How do you properly neutralize their effect after control is established? What should you do when things go wrong? We need to know these and other answers.”
Among other investigations, FSRC expects to be involved with the New Jersey Medical School and Wisconsin’s Fox Valley Technical College in a detailed study of the health effects on 100 trainees after they are shocked with Tasers. A grant of more than $400,000 for the research is pending.
Meanwhile, Everett is hopeful that “myopic” reports on Taser technology, like the one issued by Amnesty International, will not lead to hasty reaction by politicians or law enforcement decision-makers. He notes:
“There needs to be thoughtful discussion of this subject, not knee-jerk responses. Any policy or legislation passed today to restrict the Taser would be based on incomplete information. There is a strong risk of creating bad rules if we act before we know and understand the facts.”