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TASER Dos and Don’ts

Written by Steve Ijames

Electronic control devices are now in use by more than 12,000 police agencies, with over 4,000 issuing them to every officer in the field. Anecdotal force data strongly suggest that the TASER outperforms all other resistance control devices—specifically as it relates to immediate incapacitation and does so without having to rely on the suspect’s ability to perceive and submit to pain.

This is a key piece of the TASER success puzzle, as many of those encountered by law enforcement today are self-medicated, mentally ill, or enraged. These factors increase suspect tolerance to pain, which correspondingly decreases the effectiveness of more common tools / techniques such as pepper spray, batons, or simply going “hands on.” The TASER doesn’t rely on pain avoidance and as such, has generated a proven track record of effectiveness when dealing with such hardened adversaries.

The Problem

The TASER does an excellent job of stopping those exposed to it. It has also generated a significant amount of controversy. Some have suggested that the singular issue behind this is safety. The manufacturer says the TASER is safe and offers medical research and a lengthy track record of civil adjudications to support its claim. Some civil rights groups disagree, suggesting that the TASER be shelved pending further studies on safety, or used only when deadly force is justified.

This is an important issue, but not the primary one fanning the flames of controversy outlined above. Law enforcement agencies and manufacturers faced similar concerns in the 1990s with in-custody deaths following the use of pepper spray, but those storms were weathered with far less controversy. What is the difference today? In a few simple words, police credibility.

It has been said that the most serious wounds are often self-inflicted, and in the case of TASER and police credibility, we have done this to ourselves. In American policing, public trust and confidence are everything. With the TASER, law enforcement has made some unique mistakes that have placed us on the wrong side of the debate and raised questions concerning our motives, intent, and, in some cases, our honesty.

Law enforcement desperately needs the resistance-control capabilities that TASER brings to the table. The device stops suspects who couldn’t be stopped before—at least not without creating a significant risk of death or serious injury. Law enforcement also needs the trust and confidence of the people we serve. Balancing these interests, which often appear competing, requires an understanding of the factors behind the controversy and a willingness to do something about them.

Alternative to Deadly Force

The message regarding TASER use has been skewed, specifically as it relates to being an “alternative to deadly force.” Alternative means option, which generally translates into “viable choice.” The TASER will prevent many situations from escalating to deadly necessity, but it is not now (nor has it ever been) an “alternative option and viable choice” when officers are facing imminent deadly jeopardy.

On rare occasions, an opportunity may present itself in which deadly force is legally justified but a TASER can safely be used. This is the exception to the rule, and “selling” the TASER any other way sends an inaccurate and easily misunderstood message.

The “lives saved” message has resulted in people believing, erroneously, that upon receipt of the TASER, officers would use them instead of conventional firearms. As such, when officers use the TASER appropriately, in a non-deadly force scenario, the critics often cry foul. This is especially true when the TASER use involves a negative outcome.

Police managers need to take a proactive role in educating the communities they serve and make a few things abundantly clear. First, the TASER will be used to stop non-deadly resistance and/or assaultive behavior. Second, the TASER is not an alternative to deadly force. Third, officers facing imminent deadly jeopardy will respond in kind, regardless of their access to the TASER.

Drive Stun

The TASER is appropriately used in a wide variety of circumstances, but certain scenarios and situations have generated a disproportionate number of complaints and contributed to an erosion of public trust and confidence.

First, the drive stun mode. The vast majority of misuse and abuse complaints involve the TASER being deployed in the “drive stun” mode. It is important to note that the drive stun does not have the capability of causing neuro-muscular incapacitation, but instead it creates significant discomfort and the physical resistance often associated with same.

As such, multiple TASER cycles routinely follow, as officers struggle with the suspect to “stop the resistance.” This generally leaves multiple contact / signature marks on the body, which cause the ill informed to believe (and loudly proclaim) that the force was inherently excessive, torture, etc.

The majority of concerns in this area can be addressed by applying the device in a “cartridge on-angled drive stun” manner. This technique was originated by King County, WA Sheriff’s Deputy Don Gulla. It involves applying the probes in a near contact manner to one part of the body, then moving the device (leaving the probes embedded) to another part and rocking the TASER to the top right or lower left portions of the contact point. This improves the potential for neuro-muscular incapacitation, reduces the number of applications needed, and leaves fewer signature marks.

Second, use on passive resistors. A number of legitimate studies have suggested that TASER use on passively resisting subjects reduces the potential for injury on both sides of the badge. Likewise, the interpretation of the law as it relates to less-lethal force and public confidence issues have caused most agencies to ignore such studies.

This, in turn, limits TASER use to scenarios in which the suspect has demonstrated by action, word, or deed, his intention to use violence or force against the officer or another person. The bottom line is this: TASER use on truly passive subjects is outside of contemporary thinking and—absent unique and exigent circumstances— should be avoided.

Third, the use on handcuffed or secured subjects has raised considerable debate. This has resulted in a vast majority of agencies limiting such use to scenarios in which the suspect is overtly assaultive and less intrusive methods have not been effective in stopping their behavior.

It is important to note that this type of situation almost always involves the drive stun as referenced above and not surprisingly results in a disproportionate number of allegations of punitive and or excessive use of force.

Fourth is the use on “special” groups (young, old, pregnant). There is little doubt that law enforcement can justify and explain such use based on “policy,” but many of the more public cases have involved deployments that appear to fit the “lawful but awful” category.

Suffice it to say that it is in our best interest to minimize the frequency in which we use this technology on children, senior citizens, and others that might “shock the conscience” of those we serve and appear to be void of common sense and logic. One very public recent case involved an intoxicated woman being exposed to the TASER outside of a parked patrol vehicle. The event unleashed a firestorm of negative commentary. Another case generating similar criticism involved a man holding an infant.

I am not suggesting that law enforcement is prohibited from using the TASER in such cases. I am suggesting that those we serve, who ultimately control us, will discontinue allowing our use of the TASER at all if we are unable to connect the dots when facing such circumstances.

Fifth is energizing frequency and duration. Officers need to consider resolution options beyond the TASER in scenarios where the device does not expeditiously solve the resistance problem. Agencies need to “teach and preach” that the TASER is a “custody” as opposed to a “coercive” tool.

The agencies must get the point across that upon firing the device, officers should energize the subject the least number of times and no longer than necessary in order to place him in restraints. Special consideration and training should be given to securing the subject “under power” in order to minimize the number of deployment cycles needed to overcome the resistance and stop the problem.

Sixth is to remember to download data. The TASER internal computer offers a wealth of information for those who care about in-house force accountability, yet I continue to be amazed by agencies that routinely ignore it. The TASER should be downloaded at the first line supervisor level immediately following every deployment and at random intervals of no longer than 90 days.

The data must be analyzed with a focus on absolute accountability for EVERY line initialized. Officers must understand that with the exception of the pre-shift one second “spark test,” all activations of the TASER must be properly documented and accounted for with no exceptions.

Seventh is to give serious training and policy consideration to the risk of all “fall down” injuries, not limiting them to falling down from “elevated positions.” A recent study conducted by Bozeman et al for the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that when 1,201 subjects were exposed to TASER by law enforcement, 99.75% ended up with mild or no injuries at all. That is good news. But conversely, two of those exposed suffered serious intracranial injuries from impact with the ground. These are relatively small numbers, but serious injuries none the less. As such, officers should recognize that the TASER overrides the voluntary motor response, and those exposed to its effects are generally incapable of protecting themselves during a fall. Accordingly, officers should consider the physical environment involved before deploying the device. Officers should evaluate the need to terminate the behavior at that moment as compared to the risk of injury from falling down.

TASER technology offers far more benefit than baggage, and we must do everything within our power to ensure that it continues to be available to those who need it. Likewise, we must assume the responsibility of ensuring that those who have it use it only when necessary, in a manner that is reasonable based on the circumstances presented, and consistent with building the public trust.

Contrary to what some might suggest, police officers enjoy a tremendous amount of public trust and confidence and will generally get the benefit of the doubt. It is only when our motivation and credibility are challenged that such trust and confidence is eroded.

In the TASER arena, we have done singular things that have raised questions, and we are now suffering some collective accountability. We can’t change what has occurred in the past, only what we will do in response to it in the future.

We still have the opportunity to reap the organizational and community benefits of a tool that stops most “mind-body” disconnect subjects without resorting to high levels of force or exposing officers to inappropriate levels of danger. It is also an opportunity to examine the positive and negative processes of the past and address policy, training, and procedural issues that will ensure the most productive operational outcomes in the future.

Steve Ijames has been an officer for 25 years and is currently a major in charge of all Springfield, MO, police criminal investigations. He is a graduate of the 186th FBI National Academy and is an internationally recognized expert in SWAT tactics. He can be reached at lesslethal@aol.com.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2009

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