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A TASER Policy that Works

Good advice suggests you should not “reinvent the wheel” each time a new program is started. This holds true if you are tasked with formulating a policy for electronic control devices (ECDs). Along with obtaining sample policies from other agencies, you might want to analyze the results being obtained by the agencies you are researching. A large part of the answer as to why one agency gets mediocre results from its ECD program and another gets amazing results lies in the department’s policy.

Some of the common policy issues include using ECDs on high-risk individuals, limiting the number of applications, placement of ECDs on the force continuum, medical evaluations after exposure, officer exposures to ECDs, proper number of cartridges for adequate training, where and how to carry the ECD, less-lethal weapons retention training, simultaneous ECD deployments, and the essential elements for a program to obtain good results.

These and many other common issues are discussed in the two-day TASER® Instructor Training. Unfortunately, some officers assigned to set up policy have not attended this training. Even fewer command level officers responsible for approving the final policy have attended ECD training.

This lack of knowledge often creates huge problems. A thorough understanding of ECDs is a requirement for establishing a good ECD program, particularly true with the extensive amount of bad information circulating about the effects of ECDs. To be effective, the policy should also include language taken from Graham v. Connor. This language allows “wiggle room” for the officer using force. By its very nature, each use of force is unique. Departments should consider relying on an officer’s good judgment and discretion to employ objectively reasonable force.

To further complicate the matter, numerous groups have submitted model ECD policies. Well intended as these groups may be, the end result has often been a product that places excessive restraints on the end user’s ability to utilize ECDs effectively in the field. Frequently, these policies end up being more a list of what not to do than a framework for how and when to use ECDs.

As with many use-of-force policies, the common focus seems to be an attempt to avoid liability exposure. The problem is for every “thou shall not” (which takes away a force option) there must be an “if not this, then what?” This gets very complicated and confusing. Additionally, the liability has not been avoided—it has just been shifted to another force option.

For example, frequently seen on ECD policies is forbidding the use of ECDs on young children, old people and pregnant females. There is no magic formula for determining how young is too young, how old is too old, and how pregnant is too pregnant. People don’t come with labels. It is often difficult to distinguish between a mature 13-year-old and a youthful 16-year-old, or between an overweight female and one who is expecting a child. When faced with a use-of-force situation, you do not want your officers wrestling with the decision as to a suspect’s eligibility for a specific force option.

Taken to the extreme, deadly force may be an acceptable option, even though using an ECD instead would have been against policy. Not trying to send the wrong message, most of the time lethal force is the only reasonable response to a potentially lethal threat. Still, there are times when lethal force is justified but other safe ways exist to solve the problem.

What often happens is the focus on avoiding lawsuits becomes more important than getting the job done as safely as possible for all concerned. After a few incidents where a force option appears to have caused an unintended death (whether true or not) some simply choose to eliminate the use of that option. Look at hogtie restraints and neck restraints. They were considered safe techniques for years but are now excluded by many agencies fearing a lawsuit.

Law enforcement is currently struggling with the question of multiple ECD applications. Just as it would be unreasonable to say you can only strike someone “X” number of times with a nightstick, it is unreasonable to say only one or two five-second exposures are allowed. The answer here is already in place—objectively reasonable force based on the totality of circumstances.

The big issue with multiple applications is the unfounded concern that multiple exposures will contribute to a condition known as metabolic acidosis. This concern comes from a study using anaesthetized pigs in which a build up of acid in the system was found after 18 consecutive five-second shocks. The fear was ECD shocks reduced the volume of air being exchanged, thus causing the acid build-up to worsen. The latest medical research using human volunteers has proven just the opposite. People subjected to repeated ECD exposures actually exchanged more air, not less.

As with any use of force, the faster the subject can be controlled the better. Training your officers to cuff under power is therefore strongly recommended. This will minimize the need for multiple exposures. Keep in mind that limiting the number of times your policy allows the trigger to be pulled is not going to reduce the number of unintended deaths.

What it will do if implemented is increase the number of injuries to both officers and suspects due to officers having to increase the force used to facilitate an arrest, along with potentially extending the time it takes to overcome resistance. The likelihood of an unintended death is much more related to the lifestyle of the person being arrested than the force option chosen by the police. If you wish to minimize your potential for an in-custody (unintended) death, train to recognize the warning signs of excited delirium and how to handle this medical emergency.

There is no perfect place for ECDs on the force continuum. Consider replacing the old linear visual with the more accurate circular model. The “wheel” is actually not a continuum but a list of options randomly placed along the outside of a circle. If you are stuck with a continuum, results indicate that agencies deploying ECDs at the OC level are obtaining dramatic results. Agencies locating ECDs closer to lethal force are not getting the same level of reduction in injuries to officers and suspects due to less frequent ECD usage.

You might wish to reconsider the policy of having everyone exposed to an ECD checked out by medical personnel. Again, this looks good from a “lets avoid litigation” perspective, but we can’t have it both ways. ECD makers have been telling us their products cause very few injuries. Departments using ECDs continually verify this with drastically reduced injury rates (to both officers and suspects). The courts have recognized ECDs as having an extremely low injury rate, even lower than hands-on control techniques.

By putting into your policy a requirement for everyone subjected to the current from an ECD to be cleared medically, we are saying this use of force is potentially more injurious than other force options. If the injury rate is so low, there should be no need for requiring that everyone be subjected to an ECD to be checked out by EMS or taken to a hospital for evaluation. The need for medical attention should be based on obvious injuries, complaint of pain, a request for medical attention, or behavior (such as excited delirium symptoms) which indicate the need for such treatment.

Sending mixed messages is an excellent way to invite additional liability exposure. One possible solution is to have every use of force (not just ECD exposure) medically cleared by trained personnel. This makes medical clearance standard procedure for use of force and not just ECD exposures.

One of the tougher questions concerns requiring your officers to “take a hit.” The decision to require an exposure or not should come from knowing the facts and not based on the perceptions generated from the news media. As stated in the training, the possibility for injury in an exposure is not zero, but lower than engaging in any training that involves physical contact. Encouraging voluntary exposures seem to be the best solution to the problem.

How many cartridges should be fired in training? At just under $20 a pop for cartridges, ECD training can get expensive. Departments that have invested more heavily in training experience fewer problems in the field. Your agency may “save a bundle” on training by having end users fire only one or two cartridges. Those savings will be eliminated with the first lawsuit, even if you win.

So how many cartridges are enough? Get as many cartridges per student as your budget will allow. Five is a good starting point as long as at least one training cartridge is used in hands-on scenario training. The number of cartridges necessary to prepare one officer to be “street ready” will not be half enough to train another officer. There is no exact number!

Finding a spot on the duty belt for an ECD can be a problem. Controversy exists as to the best location. A small number of unfortunate incidents where the wrong weapon was used suggest you keep the ECD on the opposite side from the firearm. In each of the aforementioned incidents, the firearm and ECD were carried on the same side. Having witnessed hundreds of officers attempt to draw their ECDs under stress from different positions suggests the cross-draw position to be less confusing to officers.

That is not to say there aren’t good arguments for the off-hand standard draw. Knowing the amount of practice most officers devote to physical skills, officers should have a choice in carry locations. Making a specific carry location mandatory will ensure that some officers will have problems accessing their ECDs. Whatever the location, the officer should be required to show proficiency with his preferred carry method while under stress.

A review of your weapons retention training is also recommended. Adding another weapon to the belt that may be used against us requires a fresh look at what works and what does not. If the techniques being taught require strength or highly practiced skill levels to work, they will fail. Simple, effective weapons retention requires an aggressive mind set and a few basic skills. The skills necessary to maintain your weapons should include an effective counter attack.

If your weapons-retention training is purely defensive (hang onto the gun and hope / wait for help) you might rethink your objectives. As long as the officer is defending a weapon, the attacker is still focused on taking the weapon. An officer can change that focus with an affective counter against an eye, throat, or groin. These techniques must be taught and practiced as they will not just happen in a life-and-death struggle.

In situations where there is an elevated threat risk, having more than one ECD ready to deploy should be considered. Take the medical emergency known as excited delirium as an example. This person is most likely naked, sweating, agitated, hostile, paranoid and not responding to verbal direction. Even the most professional, calm, relaxed negotiator will likely fail in de-escalating this situation without using force.

Having been trained to recognize excited delirium symptoms, the responding officer should have EMS and lots of back-up on hand before contacting this person. Depending on the situation, lethal cover will very often be needed. If multiple officers are on scene, more than one ECD should also be available. Medical experts agree that the best way to minimize injury and or death in this situation is to capture the suspect as soon as possible with minimal amount of physical struggle.

Prolonged attempts at “waiting for him to calm down” will likely result in reducing his chances for survival. This is also the situation in which ECDs are less likely to be effective with a single application. Using two ECDs at the same time does not double the voltage, the amperage, or the risk of causing injury. It does double the chance to incapacitate the suspect quickly and allow EMS to deal with trying to save his life. Consider incorporating dual training with your local EMS responders for an excited delirium event.

Three things must happen to obtain the kind of results seen in the TASER advertisements. First, you must invest in the technology. Your department will not show a significant decrease in injuries to officers and suspects if it only provides one or two ECDs per shift.

Second, there must be a thorough training program. It takes a full day of training (including reality-based scenarios) to bring the first-time ECD operator up to speed.

Third is the requirement to have a policy flexible enough to allow officers discretion in using ECDs without sending the message that ECDs are the answer. Though difficult to document an exact number, frequently displaying an ECD is the only force necessary. It is normally advisable not to display a weapon unless you are willing to use the weapon, therefore, an overly restrictive policy equates to very few situations where ECDs will be considered. If your policy is not allowing your officers to use the equipment, you cannot expect to get the results.

Detective Jerry Staton (retired) is a 25-year veteran of the Austin, TX Police. He is a senior master TASER® instructor. He can be reached through his Web site at and by e-mail at

Published in Law and Order, Mar 2008

Rating : 6.0

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