The use of electroshock weapons by the police has generated substantial controversy over the last several years. There have been a number of suspect deaths that have been attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the use of these weapons. The first thing that needs to be mentioned is the proper terminology. The “stun gun” is a weapon that saw limited action with police departments. It is a hand held device that emitted an electrical shock to a suspect. These weapon’s biggest drawback was that the officer had to be within touching distance to a suspect to use it. The stun gun has to be pressed against the suspect for it to work. This was dangerous for the officer because it gave the suspect access to the officer’s sidearm. If the stun gun was ineffective against the suspect, the officer was in a position where they could be assaulted.
The most widely used electroshock weapon in the United States is the Taser. This weapon was created by Taser International. “Taser” has become the generic name for these types of weapons, even those made by other companies. The Taser fires two small darts that act as electrodes. These darts stay connected to the Taser by thin, conductive wires. When the two darts strike the suspect, a five second electrical charge is released into the person causing a neuromuscular incapacitation
The Taser has a maximum range of thirty five feet but is usually deployed in the seven to fifteen foot range. A second five second shock can be administered if the first one was ineffective.
If the Taser is so controversial, what are the advantages to using this weapon at all? First of all, the Taser has actually reduced the number of injuries to suspects. This writer has almost thirty years of experience in a large, Metro-Atlanta police department. In the mid-eighties, new officers were given a revolver, a night stick, and a metal flashlight. When confronted with a violent suspect, their options were limited. It was not uncommon to have to take a suspect to the hospital before taking them to the jail. To the lay reader, this probably sounds horrific. It is a reality for a police professional, however. If a suspect refuses to comply and becomes violent, the officer is going to have to use enough force to subdue them. Before the Taser, this was almost impossible to do without inflicting injuries. Since Tasers were introduced in 1999, the number of suspects having to go to the hospital before the jail has dropped drastically. Since their introduction to the Law Enforcement market, Tasers are believed to have reduced suspect injuries by 60%
A neighboring Metro-Atlanta police department suspended the use of their Tasers in 2005 after a suspect’s death was linked to their use
The irony was that after the Tasers were taken away from the officers, officer involved shootings skyrocketed. They were up over 50% the next year. This particular agency eventually went back to issuing Tasers to their officers and shootings decreased.
Another advantage to using Tasers is that injuries to officers have significantly decreased. Because the Taser is deployed from several feet away, there is less chance of an officer getting into a prolonged struggle with a suspect. In most cases, Tasers allow an officer to quickly gain control of a suspect without putting themselves at risk.
One last advantage to allowing police departments use Tasers is the fact that they actually help to reduce lawsuits alleging police brutality. Because most suspects are brought under control quickly when a Taser is used, the suspect rarely complains of any injury. Studies have shown that when used properly, Tasers reduce injuries, which in turn, reduces lawsuits
What are the risk of using Tasers? Tasers have been linked to some in-custody deaths. Four hundred deaths, over a seven year period, were studied in which Tasers played a part (http://www.ajc.com/news/dekalb/dekalb-investigates-2 -deaths-529199.html). The studied concluded that only thirty out of the the four hundred could be attributed to the Taser. Clearly, thirty deaths are thirty too many, but that is a very small number when compared to the thousands of times a year that police deploy their Tasers.
Most police departments are very pro-active in making sure that Tasers are used properly. Officers are required to undergo training in how to safely use the Taser. This training also includes requiring that every officer who carries a Taser be tased. The officer knows what the Taser feels like before they ever deploy it on a suspect. There is also a yearly Taser update that officers are required to attend. Many departments also have policy in place that requires that a suspect who has been tased be checked by paramedics before they are transported to the jail.
The Taser is not the perfect weapon. It does not take the place of an officer’s firearm. Used properly, however, the Taser has been shown to protect officers, limit injuries to a suspect, end conflict quickly, and reduce litigation. Police departments should continue to issue them to their officers, while at the same time providing the officer with the proper training and clear guidelines for the weapon’s use.
Written by Lieutenant David Spell, Special Operations at Gwinnett County Police Department/Author of Street Cop and Street Cop II: Reloaded