Following TASER International's recent bulletin advising officers to avoid shooting a suspect in the chest, PoliceOne spoke with leading TASER experts and trainers about how this announcement affects training and deployment of TASERs in the field.
The bulletin describes a "best practices" approach for officers to consider, taking into account recent research data. The bulletin, according to a memo sent by Vice President of Training Rick Guilbault, "should not be interpreted as a significant change in how the products should be used, [but should be] viewed as a best practice that mitigates risk-management issues resulting in more effective deployments while maximizing safety considerations."
"I'm fine with the new TASER advisory," says Major Steve Ijames, developer and lead instructor for the National Tactical Officers Association land IACP's less lethal "train the trainer" programs.
"I'll change my teaching [on using TASERs], not out of the fear that something bad will happen, but because if you look at the logic behind TASER's explanation, it just makes good sense."
Ijames is referring to the approach of lowering the preferred target zone by a few inches to "lower center mass" (instead of the upper chest area), where research shows that a TASER shot can be more effective in bringing a suspect down.
“Integrating aiming points into a single spot below the sternum is completely logical and sensible,” Ijames says.
Captain Greg Meyer, a TASER expert for more than 30 years and a police use-of-force consultant, has handled numerous cases of sudden in-custody death, some involving TASER and some not.
When asked about TASER's advisory, Meyer says, "The idea of training officers to avoid the chest strikes me as a risk-management move to take away the heart-attack argument during litigation.”
Meyer explained that training has continuously stressed the importance of aiming at a suspect’s back whenever possible:
“The large muscle groups of the back make it more likely that a full neuromuscular incapacitation will occur, and make it less likely that the subject will see it coming and have the opportunity to evade the probes, or reach up and pull them out. None of this is new, and has nothing to do with avoiding the area of the heart. It has been the preferable procedure for the more than 30 years that TASERs have been out there."
TASER International spokesman Steve Tuttle reinforces Meyer’s claim: “Deploying the probes to the back and splitting the belt line with exposures is the most effective deployment to achieve incapacitation and has been taught for many years now.”
However, Street Survival Seminar lead instructor Lt. Jim Glennon says that the problem with this advisory is that “in a fluid, dynamic use-of-force situation – a violent encounter with a suspect facing you – we will now be trying to direct a police officer to take aim for an area that doesn’t involve the head, chest or groin. So what you’re talking about is the stomach and leg area, which are not reliable targets.”
“What are you going to do, ask the suspect to turn around?” Glennon asks.
Glennon said what concerns him most about the advisory is the potential for confusion that might make an officer hesitate when faced with a violent suspect, driven by a fear of litigation that would place blame on the officer involved - rather than TASER International - should a suspect be injured after being hit in the chest by the device.
While that may be the case, independent field results indicate a risk factor of 0.25% for “serious injury from use of a TASER.” In essence, there is a less than 1% chance that an officer will be involved in a situation where a suspect would get seriously injured from a TASER hit to the chest.
“Medical and field studies continue to demonstrate that the TASER ECD carries a lower risk of injury than traditional force options,” Tuttle says. “When possible, avoiding the chest shots with ECDs simply avoids the controversy about whether ECDs do or do not affect the human heart.”