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New Reports Stress Taser’s Safety & Effectiveness

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Part 1 of a 2-Part Series

Just as recent reports from a major sheriff’s department and a large insurer of law enforcement agencies are describing the Taser as one of the safest and most effective subject-control tools in the street cop’s arsenal, police use of the device is coming under renewed attack by civil liberties activists.

In a 1-2 assault, the ACLU chapter in the San Francisco Bay area has issued a scathing 25-page report calling for a legislative ban on Taser use “except as a last alternative to firing a gun,” while lawyers working with the ACLU in Nevada have filed a multimillion-dollar federal wrongful death suit against the Las Vegas Metropolitan P.D. and the Taser’s manufacturer in what the ACLU claims was the Taser-related death of a handcuffed suspect.

These moves come on the heels of other recent demands for tightly restricted Taser use or negative appraisals of police Taser policies by ACLU chapters in Hawaii, Texas, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, to name just a few. (As you’ll recall from a previous Force Science News edition [see Transmission, sent 12/10/04], the activist organization Amnesty International has also been highly vocal in alleging the Taser to be an “inhumane” and potentially deadly device, campaigning avidly for a moratorium on its use.)

Meanwhile, a detailed study of Taser applications and effectiveness in actual field experience by the Orange County (FL) S.O. concludes that despite certain limitations the Taser “appears [to] offer police officers a ‘magic bullet’ solution when dealing with many confrontations.” And a “risk management memo” issued by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, a prominent liability insurer, includes reassurance to L.E. agencies that Tasers “provide police officers with a safe and effective tool for controlling dangerous behavior and overcoming resistance.”

In stark contrast to the activists’ doom-crying, the Trust says that use of the Taser “has resulted in a considerable reduction of arrest-related injuries to both officers and subjects.” And the sheriff’s study reports that in a single year in Orange County less-lethal Tasers were deployed in 18 incidents where deadly force was fully justified, leading to arrests rather than serious injury or death for the offenders involved.

In this 2-part series, we’ll take an in-depth look at these 2 positive reports, beginning with the analysis of actual street deployment of Tasers in Orange County.

[For a fuller background on the ACLU’s insistence on legislative intervention, you can read its complete report, “Stun Gun Fallacy: How the Lack of Taser Regulation Endangers Lives,” at: https://www.aclunc.org/publications/stun-gun-fallacy-how-lack-taser-regulation-endangers-lives

STREET FACTS FROM ORANGE COUNTY

The Sheriff’s Office study focuses on 400 cases randomly drawn from some 1,200 force confrontations across a 3-year period. Researchers analyzed the nature of resistance by suspects, the responses used by officers and the outcomes of the events in an effort to determine “the effectiveness of less-lethal weapons systems at the officer level,” a subject rarely examined by the academic community.

The research team was led by Dr. Charlie Mesloh, director of the Weapons and Equipment Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University, and included Capt. Steven Hougland of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Orlando, FL.

The findings, reported in the September [2005] issue of the journal “Law Enforcement Executive Forum”, published by the Executive Institute of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, include the following:

1. Taser was by far “the most frequently used less-lethal weapon” employed in use-of-force incidents. In this study, it was relied upon to stop suspect resistance in 73% of confrontations, compared to chemical agents at 18%, defensive tactics 6% and impact weapons 3%. Bean bag rounds were used only once, in an encounter involving SWAT.

Interestingly, none of the impact weapon applications involved use of a baton, the researchers discovered. Instead, in each case, “a flashlight was utilized in this function as an improvised impact weapon.”

In assessing the relative unpopularity of less-lethal options other than Taser, the researchers observe:

  • Officers commonly feel that DT techniques taught by their agency are “ineffective against aggressive subjects.” Officers who study martial arts on their own–particularly grappling techniques–seem most likely to apply those skills against resistant subjects.
  • OC, considered “the cutting edge less-lethal weapon of its time,” is plagued by “issues regarding cross-contamination of back-up officers and a growing number of reports that suspects were able to fight through the burning pain.”
  • Baton configuration has changed in recent years, with “high-visibility nightsticks and side-handled batons” having “gone out of style” and been replaced with collapsible straight batons which, in effect, are “little more than a metal club to be used for striking and blocking….[M]any of the advanced control techniques…possible with the PR-24″ are now “difficult if not impossible.”

2. “[I]n all cases in which deadly force would have been sanctioned and a less-lethal weapon was used, Taser was the only weapon selected by officers.” The researchers conclude that “it is clear that a substantial number of suspects’ lives were spared as a result of Taser deployments.”

The research data did not reveal, however, “whether officers made a conscious decision to take a more humane approach” (in avoiding deadly force) or the Taser “was already in hand and the time required to transition [to a gun] was too great.” Regardless, the outcome was strongly to the suspects’ benefit.

3. Officers perceived that Taser is the “only [less-lethal] tool available that has the ability to prevent escape.” Overall, “Taser was used to stop fleeing suspects…84% of the time.” Other less-lethal options, “such as chemical agents and impact weapons, are generally ineffective at stopping a fleeing suspect” due to distance considerations.

Narcotics offenses are the ones most likely to escalate into use-of-force encounters, the study shows, and 63% of narcotics suspects “originally resisted by taking flight.” Across all categories of suspects, “flight was the most common type of resistance” and was encountered nearly one-third of the time.

In terms of active resistance, suspects most often wrestled with or struck officers (27% and 13.5% of resistance respectively). Less than 5% of resistance involved armed suspects threatening or using weapons against officers. Taser was the most frequent less-lethal option used in response to offenders with weapons.

4. A single application of a Taser could not be relied upon to be successful unfailingly. Indeed, Taser was “ineffective” 23% of the time from a single application. However, the researchers point out, “Taser training stresses the use of multiple applications in order to bring a suspect under control.”

When deployed a second time, Taser’s “ineffectiveness dropped to less than 3%.” Then, it was deployed a third time or the officer switched to a different less-lethal option or the suspect escaped, with officers “unprepared to engage in a foot pursuit.”

The study notes that successful escape “occurred more frequently” after a Taser failure, “as officers were accustomed to immediate compliance on the part of the suspect and it is extremely difficult to run with a weapon and drag 21 feet of wire and probes.”

5. Missing when firing a Taser is the greatest cause of failure.

Analyzing 50 cases of Taser failure, the researchers found that missing the subject with both probes accounted for 38% and baggy clothing worn by the suspect caused 32%. Other factors included: probe coming loose, 28%; suspect grabbing the Taser, 2%; unit malfunction, 4%; cartridge fell off, 2%. (Recent Taser improvements have addressed some of the failure problems, the researchers note.)

“A drawback to the Taser is that while the cartridges have an advertised range of 21 feet, it is not feasible to properly deploy the weapon at that distance and expect a successful outcome,” the researchers report. At 18 feet, an average probe spread of about 30 inches is experienced, “which is too great to assume that both probes will hit their target as required for the Taser to be effective.”

Ineffective deployments are “more related to distance factors than the suspect’s ability to fight through electricity,” the study found.

Even with its shortcomings, Taser can be deployed at greater ranges than other less-lethal weapons, which “require the suspect to be in close proximity to the officer.”

In their report, the researchers take note of the action-reaction time lag that often places officers at a disadvantage in responding effectively to suspects’ aggressive behavior. This disadvantage has been well documented in numerous experiments conducted by the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

“Training and experience may reduce reaction times,” the researchers point out, by “inherently cue[ing] officers to furtive movements and pre-assault indicators.” In the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, such cues are considered a level of resistance that allows “officers to deploy the Taser earlier in the confrontation, thereby deescalating the encounter before it matures.”

In summary, the report concludes that “[b]ased on officer interviews and the data, it appears that the Taser offers police officers a ‘magic bullet’ solution when dealing with many confrontations.” And it predicts that with improvements “it is likely that Taser will continue to dominate in less-lethal weapon deployments.”

Regarding the Orange County report, Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, says: “This study confirms the general law enforcement experience that the Taser is the most versatile and effective force instrument available to law enforcement to date. It also supports the law enforcement claim that without the Taser officers would be using lethal force more frequently.”

For a full copy of the Law Enforcement Executive Forum article on the Orange County study, contact:

Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board
Executive Institute
1 University Circle
Macomb, IL 61455
(309) 298-2646

The article, entitled “Taser and Less Lethal Weapons: An Exploratory Analysis of Deployments and Effectiveness,” is available in pdf format for $4 and in a hard copy for $10.

[Thanks to Wayne Schmidt, executive director of Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, for bringing the Orange County study to our attention.]

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