TASER today: Controversy, credibility & control considerations
By Major Steve Ijames
Springfield, Missouri Police Department
It’s been about 35 years since NASA scientist Jack Cover answered the President Lyndon Johnson’s "non-lethal" call by developing the Taser, the acronym for the device used by the boy-hero of Victor Appleton’s 1911 adventure story, "Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle." The technology languished in obscurity for the first ten years, enjoyed a west coast run from 1981 to Rodney King, then was resurrected and re-invented by TASER International (with the M26) around 1999. The rise from that point on was nothing short of meteoric, with Taser dominating use-of-force discussions up to and including today.
Unfortunately, the topic has remained the same, but the tone now dramatically differs. The focus has shifted from offense to defense as police agencies, trainers and the manufacturer face a firestorm of public criticism and controversy over Taser.
What happened? That’s a good question. Regretfully, we don’t have to look far for answers.
On the surface the issue is clearly safety:
- TASER International says their products are safe
- Amnesty International says Taser use is connected to more than 100 deaths
The debate, which is being considered by a number of bodies here and abroad, will ultimately be resolved outside the law enforcement arena. Below the surface, however, the controversy is not about safety but credibility - the lack of which is driving the superficial safety debate. Law enforcement and related industries faced similar problems with pepper spray deaths in the past, yet they weathered the storm with far less controversy. What’s the difference? Credibility.
The most serious wounds are self-inflicted, and in the case of Taser and its credibility, we’ve done it to ourselves. In American policing public confidence is everything. With the Taser, unique mistakes have placed us on the wrong side of the debate and caused some to question our motives, intent and in some cases even our honesty.
A number of issues have contributed to this:
ALTERNATIVE TO DEADLY FORCE
We have skewed the message regarding Taser use, specifically in the area of positioning it as an alternative to deadly force. The Taser is not an alternative to deadly force. Alternative means option, which translates into a viable choice. When police officers face legitimate deadly jeopardy, deadly force is the safest and most appropriate response. They should not be encouraged to use less force when facing a direct deadly threat. On rare occasion, an opportunity may present itself in which deadly force is legally justified, but a less lethal option can safely be deployed. This is the exception to the rule, and selling the Taser any other way sends the wrong message. Our "lives saved" mantra is overstated at worst, misunderstood at best and expensive to our credibility either way.
Using Tasers in the following scenarios has generated a disproportionate number of complaints and in some cases contributed to an erosion of public support and confidence:
Passive resistors: Statistics indicate Taser use on passive resistors reduces the potential for injury to everyone involved. Likewise, interpretation of law related to "force less than deadly" and public confidence issues have caused the vast majority of agencies to limit their Taser use to scenarios in which the suspect has demonstrated by action, word, or deed, their intention to use violence or force against the officer or another person.
Handcuffed/secured subjects: The use of the Taser on handcuffed/secured/grounded prisoners has raised considerable debate, and resulted in most agencies limiting such use to scenarios in which the suspect is overtly assaultive and less intrusive control methods have not been ineffective. This type of scenario almost always involves the "touch-drive" stun mode, and results in a disproportionate number of allegations of coercive and/or excessive use of force.
Very young-very old subject: Such use can be justified, but a number of deployments fit the "lawful but awful" category. It is in our best interest to minimize the frequency in which we use this technology on children and senior citizens. There may be circumstances that justify it, but we need to do what we logically can to avoid it.
Energizing frequency/duration: We need to consider resolution options beyond the Taser in scenarios where the device does not expeditiously solve the problem. Upon firing the device, we should energize the subject as little as possible in order to take him or her into custody. Special consideration and training should be given to securing the subject "under power," in order to minimize the number of deployment cycles needed to stop the threat.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
Taser and financial issues add fuel to the credibility fire, as some connected directly or indirectly to law enforcement are shown benefiting financially from Taser sales or proliferation. An April 26, 2004, "USA Today" editorial offers a scathing diatribe on Taser training being conducted by active duty law enforcement officers who may exert influence on agency buying decisions.
Do I believe an active duty police officer is the best person to provide such training? Absolutely. Do I believe that such editorials raise questions concerning the appearance of a conflict of interest? Absolutely. Agencies must seriously consider such things if we are to move forward in the process.
Considering the issues outlined above, where does the Taser ultimately fit in the contemporary law enforcement picture? In my opinion, on my duty belt and on the belt of every other properly trained and supervised police officer in America. This device stops people who couldn’t be stopped before, at least not without using significant levels of force. In December 2004 I wrote Jack Cover a letter (yes, he’s still alive) thanking him for what he did years ago. The following excerpt puts my thoughts on Taser technology in proper perspective:
"In my opinion, the Taser is the single most important police device ever invented. We have only scratched the surface of Taser capability and the long term positive impact it will have on accomplishing the police mission with reduced potential for death and injury."
Taser technology offers far more benefit than baggage. As police officers, we must do everything within our power to ensure it is available to those who need it. Likewise, we must assume the absolute responsibility of ensuring that those who have it use it only when necessary in a manner that is reasonable based on the facts presented and consistent with building the public trust. Contrary to popular belief, police officers enjoy tremendous public trust and confidence, generally getting the benefit of the doubt.
In the Taser arena we have done things that have raised questions and are suffering some collective accountability. We can't change what has occurred in the past, only what we will do in the future.
About Maj. Ijames:
Steve Ijames is a major with the Springfield, Missouri Police Department, and has been a police officer for the past 27 years. Steve formed his agencies full time tactical unit in 1989, and worked his way through the structure from team leader to special operations commander. Steve was an original member of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) board of directors, and was the course developer/lead instructor for the NTOA and IACP less lethal force options "train the trainer" programs. Steve has provided such training across the United States and in 31 foreign countries, and frequently provides agency litigation defense when the use of such tools are called into question.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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