In this paper we examine the usage of Tasers as a tool for law enforcement. A significant number of accidents and even in-custody deaths are attributed to the reckless usage of Tasers. As Tasers become increasingly common to the law enforcement officials, it is crucial to study the effectiveness and safety of these devices. To evaluate critically these aspects about usage of Tasers, it is important to distinguish between factual information and operational policing incidents with newspaper articles and opinions. We attempt to outline the operational benefits afforded by Tasers as against the risks like possible injury or death caused by its usage. We would further explore whether the use of Tasers is justified from an ethical and operational standpoint or is it used as a method of excessive punishment.
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Tasers can be operated in a probe mode or a drive stun mode. In a drive stun mode Tasers work like an ordinary stun gun causing sudden and acute pain. This mode does not affect the motor functions and does not immobilize the subject. In a drive stun mode Tasers can incapacitate the subject by disrupting the subject’s voluntary muscle control along with causing considerable pain. In this mode Tasers provide both the pain inducing function of stun guns and immobilization function of CEDs. Typically Tasers are used by the police officials to subdue aggressive and violent suspects who would not respond to any other nonviolent measures or negotiations. The primary benefit of Tasers being that the nonlethal nature of the device helps to save lives of both the suspects and the law enforcement officers. It is also an effective deterrent in potentially violent situations and can be used as a preferred alternative to use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.
Usage of Tasers
Established in 1993, Taser International Inc. is the developer, manufacturer and distributor of Tasers worldwide. Tasers are used by over 13,000 law enforcement agencies in 44 countries including USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and France (TASER International, 2008). Several of these agencies arm all of their patrol officials with Tasers. With the increasing use of Tasers, there are a wide number of studies conducted by independent agencies to assess the safety and effectiveness of these devices. Some of the notable ones are evaluations conducted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers , UK Home Office (Donnelly et al., 2002), Nova Scotia, Canada (Nova Scotia Department of Justice, 2008), Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner in British Columbia, Canada (Battershill et al., 2004).
Operational Benefits of Tasers
Tasers can’t be used to substitute firearms but are considered an effective complementary tool for the police officials (Smith, 2008). The popularity of Tasers stems from the fact that these devices provide significant operational advantages to the police officials.
- They are more effective than batons or oleoresin capsicum spray as they don’t just inflict pain like the former, but can also incapacitate the suspect. This allows officials to apprehend suspects with the minimal incidence of injuries.
- Tasers require no post-operative treatment as subjects recover on their own without any medical assistance, contrasted with oleoresin capsicum spray that may require considerable aftercare (Bozeman, 2005).
- Significant deterrence potential as the suspect often becomes compliant merely on presentation (or threat) of using Tasers. A study commissioned by Association of Chief Police Officers, UK, found that 12.1% of situations were resolved simply by aiming the Tasers at suspect. Thus, Tasers are highly effective in defusing potentially violent situations and controlling aggressive suspects without resorting to actual application of force.
- Tasers provide a more targeted deployment on the suspect protecting bystanders and other officers. OC spray, on the other hand, can cause secondary exposure to other people in the proximity of deployment.
- High success rates with the use of Tasers producing successful outcomes in majority of cases. Multiple studies find the success rates to vary between 78% to 100% (Donnelly et al., 2002)
- Numerous studies have asserted that Tasers have a high potential to reduce the risk of injury. In Phoenix, for instance, the usage of Tasers reduced the reported injuries in arrested suspects by over 60% (Battershill et al., 2004).
- Tasers also reduce the usage of lethal force, for e.g. Taser International reported that the usage of Tasers has caused 78 percent reduction of lethal force in Orange County , 54 percent reduction in Phoenix (TASER International, 2006)
Potential Risks of Tasers
While it is generally found that Tasers are medically safe and do not cause any long lasting effects, situational factors may cause significant damage to the suspects.
According to various studies, the risk of serious injuries like facial or groin lacerations is as low as 1 to 3 percent, while damage to eyes was estimated at 0.04 percent (Donnelly et al., 2002). However, if the suspect is standing on a heightened platform like a roof top or a balcony, serious injuries may be resulting from the fall from that height. Although extremely rare but Tasers have a potential to ignite the suspect covered with inflammable substance or in environments where flammable vapors are present, like gas stations (Donnelly et al. 2002). There have been however no reported deaths caused explicitly and solely due to the usage of Tasers (McBride, 2005).
However, the usage of Tasers coupled with medical conditions like heart defects or drug-abuse may lead to death. It has also been found that multiple usage of Tasers on physically vulnerable subjects may cause potential injuries or even death.
Potential Misuse – Method of Excessive Force or Punishment
There is a significant public concern about misuse of Tasers by the law enforcement officers. In a survey conducted in New Zealand in 2008, 10 percent of the respondents expressed concern about misuse of Tasers and were against police officers using Tasers. There have been reported incidents of unwarranted, inappropriate or excessive usage of Tasers by the police officials.
However, these incidents are behavioral concerns related to the conduct of police officers and not a direct risk factor associated with the device itself. Such an argument can be made against any tool used by the police officer, be it the baton or the firearm.
Tasers provide significant operational benefits to the law enforcement agencies. They considerably reduce incidences of injuries and confrontations with the suspect. They also act as an effective deterrence and reduce the usage of otherwise lethal force by police officials. Tasers are highly effective law enforcement tools and produce no long lasting injuries on the suspects.
There have been no reported incidents where Tasers were found solely responsible for causing death of a suspect. However, other factors like substance abuse, pre-existing heart conditions or situational factors coupled with the use of Tasers may cause grievous injuries or even death. Police officials must be sensitized with potential risks these devices carry; they must be thoroughly trained about the potentially adverse situations and environments where Tasers should not be used. Officers should also strictly adhere to recommended deployment techniques to avoid accidental damage to suspects. I firmly believe that benefits of Tasers far outweigh the potential risks these devices present. Since most of these risk factors can be eliminated with proper training, situational awareness on the part of police officials and proper Tasers’ deployment techniques.