Part 2 of a 2-Part Series
A large insurer of law enforcement agencies has issued a position paper on Tasers that cites 10 “risk management considerations” for their safe and effective use and directly refutes concerns of activist groups that allege these popular control tools are dangerous and inhumane.
In contrast to intense criticism from Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, which have called for a moratorium or tight restrictions on Taser use, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust has concluded after a thorough review of available studies that these weapons have “resulted in a considerable reduction of arrest-related injuries to both officers and subjects” and are a “safe and effective” means of “controlling dangerous behavior and overcoming resistance.”
The Trust’s report, distributed recently to its 800-plus clients and posted in full on the Internet, is authored by attorney and former police administrator and trainer William Everett. Everett is the Trust’s associate administrator and a member of the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
The 10-page paper is intended to provide helpful, objective information to police administrators and city officials who are debating whether to equip officers with Tasers and to those agencies already using the devices that want to minimize potential problems. Content includes an assessment of widely publicized claims by activists that Tasers have caused deaths and severe injuries, findings from recent Taser field studies in the U.S. and Canada, where to place these devices on the force continuum, as well as specific suggestions for optimizing positive results from their use.
Meanwhile, here’s a summary of its highlights:
The report concludes that while Tasers are “highly effective in helping officers achieve control over violent and resistive subjects,” they pose a “very low risk of injury to the individual arrested.” Indeed, “scientific and medical studies have…largely debunked claims” that Tasers have been “a primary cause of death for individuals who have perished while in police custody.”
In fact, research indicates that when used appropriately, Tasers “generally present a very low risk of danger to the subject….Law enforcement agencies have reported notable declines in injuries to officers and arrestees” once Tasers are introduced into a confrontation. Tasers have “alleviated the need for deadly force in many encounters with armed individuals.” In many cases, “an officer’s mere display of the device is sufficient to overcome an individual’s willingness to fight or resist.”
No device has ever been–and perhaps never will be–100% safe, the report acknowledges. But “substantial evidence” from current research indicates that Tasers pose scant risk to healthy individuals.
If drug impaired or mentally ill subjects are at any greater risk, as some critics contend, “[m]edical professionals who have thoroughly studied the issues believe…the risk stems from multiple applications of electrical energy,” the report states. Therefore, LEOs “should generally limit the duration of electrical discharge cycles to no more than 15 to 20 seconds.”
The report points out that arrestees may be “already in a medical danger zone” before police arrive. Such influences as cocaine and methamphetamine and extreme mental/physical states like excited delirium can provoke “a life-threatening cardiac event,” for example, regardless of police intervention.
A report on Taser safety from the Canadian Police Research Centre this past summer concludes that “existing studies indicate that the risk of cardiac harm [from a Taser application] is very low.” And the CPRC found there is NO “definitive research or evidence” to suggest that Taser use has caused death.
The Trust memo notes: “There is general medical agreement that the effect is immediate when an individual comes into contact with a fatal electrical shock. It follows that when an in-custody death occurs minutes or hours after a [Taser] application, then death didn’t occur as a result of a heart-stopping shock” from the device.
The Trust report summarizes the findings of half a dozen studies of Taser deployment by patrol officers from agencies in Ohio, Washington, Wisconsin, Florida and Ontario. These findings include:
Columbus (OH) P.D.:
Tasers were effective nearly 90% of the time that fired probes struck on target. Ineffectiveness was tied to suspects’ thick clothing, misses generally to deployment during foot pursuits. Once Tasers were on the street, excessive force complaints declined more than 25%, subject injuries more than 24% and officer injuries more than 23%. The devices were credited with preventing a dozen suicides.
Injuries to subjects and officers are reported “low in Taser deployments when compared with other use-of-force situations.” Of subjects Tasered, 71% were impaired by alcohol, mental illness or delusion,” (conditions that often blunt a suspect’s reaction to chemical sprays and other pain compliance techniques). Twenty-three per cent of suspects Tasered were armed, primarily with knives.
After more than 300 Taser deployments, arrest-related injuries to officers were down 70%, with suspect injuries down 40%. Use of force by “other traditional means” dropped 50%. The department notes a decrease in citizen complaints regarding use of force.
Madison (WI) P.D.:
Tasers were successful in producing incapacitation 77% of the time. More than 6% of use was to subdue suspects “whose actions would have justified the use of deadly force.” Reduced injuries to officers and subjects alike were reported.
Toronto Police Service:
“In 65% of all incidents, the presence of the device contributed to a successful resolution without being used. The device was effective in 88% of the incidents in which it was actually used.” More than one-third of the incidents involved individuals who were armed (overwhelmingly with edged weapons).
Orange County (FL) S.O.:
Among all “lower-lethality options,” Tasers had “the highest level of de-escalation (subjects were less likely to fight harder against an arrest after use)” and also the “highest deterrent effect (people were less likely to resist or fight once they were aware the device might be used).” Workers’ comp claims related to arrest injuries have dropped 50%. Taser’s rate in controlling resistant suspects was much higher than that of “conventional hand-to-hand techniques,” which besides being ineffective nearly 30% of the time also resulted in the “largest number of subject and officer injuries.”
FORCE CONTINUUM PLACEMENT
Options are ranked along a continuum of force “by comparing how much harm they are likely to cause the subject,” the Trust paper explains. As an “obvious starting point” on where to place Tasers on the continuum, they “are not likely to cause death or great bodily harm,” the report notes, “and thus should not be classified as deadly force.”
Bottom line: Tasers should be placed lower on the continuum than impact weapons and techniques and slightly higher than chemical spray.
The memo offers these 10 “risk management considerations” to help minimize the risks of using conductive energy devices:
- Involve your local governing body in deciding whether to equip officers with Tasers. This lets local politicians weigh in on Taser issues “while they are more abstract,” rather than being confronted by them “for the first time after an emotionally charged incident has occurred.” Optimally, local officials should be well versed in the benefits and risks of Taser use before they need to respond to a media or citizen inquiry about police use of the devices.
- Strongly consider the Taser X26 rather than the M26, which uses more wattage to incapacitate a subject. The X26, with its digital pulse controller and lower wattage, “increase[es] the margin of electrical safety.”
- Training should reflect that “multiple applications, particularly continuous cycling for periods exceeding 15-20 seconds, may increase the risk to the subject and should be avoided when practical.” If you haven’t gained control after 15-20 seconds, “reassess and consider another force option or disengagement.” On the other hand, the memo points out, “continuous cycling may be a very prudent choice when the apparent alternative is escalation to deadly force.”
(Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center, told Force Science News that the Center “encourages only limited use of more than 3 Taser applications until further research results are known about the safety of frequent and repeated applications.”)
- Be sure policy and training provide guidelines for when to use the Taser in the probe mode versus the drive-stun mode.
- If you’re going to use a Taser, “do so before everyone is exhausted…as soon as it becomes apparent that arrest needs to occur and that lower-level force options are unlikely to work” or are otherwise inappropriate. “[P]rolonged struggle heightens the risk to both the officer and the subject.” Taser use may accentuate “the negative physiological effects of physical exhaustion” and respiratory impairment may become a concern when a Taser is used during, or at the end of, an extended struggle.
- “Pregnancy contraindicates [Taser] use because of the risk of miscarriage. With pregnancy, [Taser] use is clearly preferable to a firearm if the situation warrants deadly force, but is less justifiable if the situation does not require a firearm.”
- “Try to avoid discharging through probes placed on the head. Scientific evidence suggests that electrical outputs delivered to the head are capable of producing seizures.”
- “Carefully consider the ramifications of [Taser] use on children and the elderly.” Backlash from the public (including judges and jurors) may be strong in these cases, plus people with smaller bodies may have “a lower margin of safety with regard to electrical currents.” However, the paper cautions against “blanket prohibitions” that may expose officers and others “to unreasonable risks of danger due to the alternatives.”
- Give careful consideration regarding the use of Tasers on officers as a part of their training. “Officers are better equipped to defend their use of the device on the witness stand if they have themselves experienced” Taser incapacitation. However, “occasional injuries” have been reported because of Taser discharges in training. The Trust acknowledges that “there is no clear solution to this dilemma,” but stresses that it should be “recognized and resolved thoughtfully.”
- “As with other force transactions, it is imperative that officers prepare accurate and detailed reports” of Taser use. Reports should document: the circumstances leading to Taser deployment…verbal commands given…the subject’s response…why Taser was selected instead of other less severe force options…where the probes struck the suspect…the approximate number of cycles delivered…and how the situation was resolved.