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Use of force: Facing subjects armed with ECWs

This article specifically addresses the Electronic Control Weapon capable of deploying probes/darts into a person from farther away than touch distance, causing involuntary muscular contractions/incapacitation

Officers must be prepared to use reasonable force options/weapons in any arrest situation. They must also be prepared for the instance when a weapon may be used against them.

One weapon that has gained much acceptance to law enforcement over the last decade is the Electronic Control Weapon (ECW). To clarify, this article specifically addresses the ECW capable of deploying probes/darts into a person from farther away than touch distance, causing involuntary muscular contractions/incapacitation (trying hard here not to step on any trademarks).

Officers have been trained on when it is reasonable to use the ECW to effect the arrest, prevent the escape or overcome the resistance of a person that has committed a crime. The courts have given us guidance on the reasonable use of ECWs. 

This begs the question, “Have you trained for the eventuality that a suspect may try to use an ECW against you?”

There are civilian models of ECWs that are available, and none of us should be naïve enough to think that there is no chance that a law enforcement ECW might get into the hands of a criminal.

If it is predictable, we should train for it.

The Solo Officer
If a solo officer confronts a suspect with an ECW, there are two factors that may have an impact on the officer’s decision:

1.) Is the suspect within the distance range to hit the officer with the probes?
2.) Is there an object between the officer and suspect that would defeat the probes (such as a sliding glass door)?


If the suspect is within the distance and there are no obstacles to defeat the probes, that officer is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death if struck by the probes.

That’s not because the ECW itself causes a significant risk of these injuries, but because the officer is at serious risk of becoming incapacitated and therefore unable to defend himself or his weapons.

In the case of a solo officer, there is little doubt that deadly force would be a reasonable force option.

Multiple Officers
Now consider having more than one officer on scene when a suspect reveals his intent to use an ECW against the officers. The same two considerations as above should factor into the choice but now we have other factors (and legal standards) to examine.

First we need to remember that most ECWs are a single person weapon. Is the officer able to distinguish the ECW capability? Is it a single cartridge device or multiple cartridges? If you cannot determine for certain, are you willing to take a chance?

As a legal standard, the law enforcement community and the courts have placed the ECW in the category of non-deadly force. It is a level of force that does not create a significant risk of serious bodily injury or death in of itself.

If there are more officers than the ECW is capable of taking for a ride, is it reasonable to still use deadly force?

Some argue that the solution does not change no matter how many officers are on scene.

I disagree but also do not have a bright-line answer either. I believe that if there are 10 officers on scene and it is determined that the ECW is clearly a one-shot device, then it would be unreasonable to shoot the suspect based on the ability of the other nine officers to defend the one unlucky officer against any physical attack from the suspect.

It is important to remember that each situation is going to be slightly different and depending of the totality of the circumstances, it may be unreasonable with only two officers on scene.

Trainers and officers must discuss and practice through realistic scenario training for the encounters in order to have the basics of the plan already thought out so it does not become necessary to develop the entire response plan and have to completely analyze the reasonableness of the force response while engaged in the fight.

The key point here is to discuss and train to this situation before it happens in order to prevent a delayed response by the officer. An officer who has trained for this situation will have a quicker and more reasonable response.

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