Expert Commentary

U.S. Department of Justice: Police use of force, Tasers and other weapons

2011 report by the National Institute of Justice on the effectiveness and safety of Tasers and other conducted energy devices.

Police forces across the United States use a variety of techniques to deal with situations that may involve violence. Though the wooden baton was once the only less-lethal weapon available, more advanced technologies such as Taser devices are now employed.

Use of any technique comes with attendant risks, both for the public and for officers, and Tasers remain the subject of significant controversy. On April 4, 2015, Walter L. Scott was shot by a police officer after a routine traffic stop in North Charleston, S.C. The officer, Michael T. Slager, initially attempted to use a Taser, and when the device either failed or was improperly used, the officer fired eight shots from his pistol, killing Scott. Slager claimed that Scott had attempted to take his Taser, but this was not supported by a video of the incident. And two days earlier in Tulsa, Okla., Eric C. Harris was shot by a 73-year-old volunteer with the sheriff’s department; the volunteer, Robert C. Bates, said he wanted to use his Taser to subdue Harris during an arrest but accidentally pulled out his pistol. Harris died, and Bates was charged with homicide.

A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, “Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons,” examines the effectiveness and health outcomes of incidents involving CEDs (conducted energy devices), the most common of which is the Taser. The study looked at a range of police departments and specific incidents, and examined national survey data. The Taser, which is now used by some 15,000 law enforcement and military agencies across the United States, produces 50,000 volts of electricity and temporarily stuns and disables its target. But the electricity produced has also been associated with injury and even death.

The report’s findings include:

  • Injury rates vary widely when officers use force in general, ranging from 17% to 64% for citizens and 10% to 20% for officers.
  • Use of Tasers and other CEDs can reduce the statistical rate of injury to suspects and officers who might otherwise be involved in more direct, physical conflict. An analysis of 12 agencies and more than 24,000 use-of-force cases “showed the odds of suspect injury decreased by almost 60% when a CED was used.” This finding is not uniform across all agencies, however, and comes with a number of caveats.
  • A review of fatal Taser incidents found that many involved multiple uses of the device against the suspect in question. Therefore, “caution is urged in using multiple applications.” Because of increased vulnerability, caution should be exercised in using Tasers against “small children, those with diseased hearts, the elderly, those who are pregnant and other at-risk people.”
  • According to surveys of police departments, rules regarding Taser use vary widely. Six of every ten departments allow “for CED use against a subject who tenses and pulls when the officer tries to handcuff him or her.” In addition, only 31% ban CED use against clearly pregnant women, 25.9% against drivers of moving vehicles, 23.3% against handcuffed suspects, 23.2% against people in elevated areas and 10% against the elderly.
  • CEDs are “rapidly overtaking other force alternatives” among police departments and in some cases are being used at a rate that exceeds that of officers using “soft empty hand tactics,” or simple pushing or grappling with resistant suspects.
  • Overall, the growing use of CEDs is cause for concern: “Although the injury findings suggest that substituting CEDs for physical control tactics may be useful, their ease of use and popularity among officers raise the specter of overuse.”

The authors conclude that the findings suggest ” the need to look beyond situational risks and the factors that are most likely to explain both the appropriate use of Tasers and the more general exercise of coercive force by police.”

Related research: A 2012 study in Police Science and Management, “Police Crime and Less-Than-Lethal Coercive Force: A Description of the Criminal Misuse of Tasers,” used content analysis of newspaper articles on 24 police officers arrested for crimes involving inappropriate use of Tasers from January 2005 to May 2010. “The findings indicate that the cases examined did not involve much, if any, situational risk to the officer. The criminal misuse of Tasers seems more likely to involve suspects who are already handcuffed, or even citizens who are clearly not criminals at all.”

Keywords: crime, guns, safety, technology, Tasers, less-than-lethal force, policing

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