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

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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

    Writer: | Last updated: April 7, 2015

    Citation: Stinson, Philip Matthew, Sr,; et al. "Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons" International Journal of Police Science & Management, March, 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1-19. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1350/ijps.2012.14.1.237.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Associated Press article titled " Police Use of Stun Guns Eyed in Officer-involved Killings."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled "Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons."

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?