After watching what I thought was an unnecessary use of Tasers by Lexington police last week, I became mildly obssessed. I’ve been on an extended surfing excursion, looking for information, and there’s a lot of it out there. And a lot of it should be cause for concern. Like any other weapon carried by law enforcement officers, Tasers should be used only when necessary, and unfortunately there are times when the use of force is necessary. But Tasers seem to present an unusual temptation for abuse, unlike other weapons.
The basic theme of pro-Taser propaganda is that a Taser can help take down an armed suspect in a situation where lethal force (i.e. gunfire) might otherwise be necessary. In such cases, Tasers have the potential to save the life of the suspect as well as the officer. This is good news. The bad news is that Taser usage is not restricted to life-threatening situations.
I found a very interesting testimonial on Taser’s own website. These guys can spin a story better than the gang in the White House.
In 2000, of the nearly 1,100 cases in which the Taser was used In Orange County, Fla., which includes Orlando, 28 were instances in which officers previously would have used deadly force.
“That’s 28 people who are going to be around with their families for the holidays that may not have been.” – Sgt. Paul Hopkins of the Orange County, FL Sheriff’s Office.
Okay, so maybe 28 people didn’t end up getting shot because they got shocked instead. I’ll agree that’s good news. What about the other 1000+ people who were Tasered in instances where officers would not have used deadly force? In cases where shooting was not the alternative, what would officers have used without Tasers? Mace? Pepper gas? Nightsticks? I think in many cases, the answer is none of the above.
In the incident I witnessed, a handcuffed teenager who was obviously not a physical threat was Tasered because he didn’t comply with an order quickly enough. Would officers have been justified in clubbing or gassing him? I think most reasonable people would say No. And, in this post-Rodney King era, when you never know who might be carrying a video camera, I don’t think many officers would have considered beating or gassing a handcuffed kid. Then why was it okay to Taser him?
Is Taser use less drastic than other non-lethal force? I think not. We’re not talking about a joy buzzer. This is pretty intense stuff. In my surfing tour, I found an interesting article in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. In general, I think EMS personnel are fairly sympathetic to police officers and the challenges they face. So when they have serious concerns, I don’t think it can be dismissed as liberal cop-bashing.
Taser’s PR people say they’re safe: “The electrical current is safe and has no lingering effect upon the body with the output at 1.76 Joules per pulse on the TASER technology versus an AED’s output ranging from 150 Joules per pulse to 350+ Joules”. But a California paramedic says a physician told him otherwise: “Dr. Alan Morini, who was present at our meeting, explained to those present that ALL patients who are subjected to a Taser need to be evaluated in the emergency room, due to the possibility of undetected myocardial damage. He stated that the amount of energy a Taser produces is capable of depolarizing sufficient myocardial tissue to cause AMI. He stated that it is his emergency department’s standard practice to run a 12 lead EKG and cardiac enzymes to rule out AMI prior to releasing the subject to law enforcement.”
Most of the concerns voiced in the JEMS article seemed to be that police and EMS departments need established procedures for the treatment of Tasered individuals, and in many cases that’s not happening. A dropout from the Lexington police academy who had been through their Taser training told me that if an officer fires the Taser barbs into a suspect, he has to call EMS to remove them. But in cases where the Taser is used at close range without shooting the barbs, there doesn’t seem to be a policy for medical attention. EMS was not called to the scene to treat or evaluate the victims I saw; I don’t know whether they received medical attention after they were transported to jail.
I don’t think any of the people quoted in the JEMS article felt that Tasers should never be used; they just seemed to agree that procedures need to be established for adequate treatment. That seems to be a reasonable attitude. I also think that any kind of force that requires followup treatment should be used only when necessary, and not just when cops think it would be handy to make somebody move a little faster.