May 5, 2012
Tasers subject their victims to a 50,000 volt shock followed by 100 microsecond pulses of 1,200 volts. Since 2001, more than 500 people in the United States have died after law enforcement officers used this weapon against them. A study published this week by the American Heart Association’s Circulation Journal confirms that the misuse of a Taser can cause sudden cardiac arrest and death.
In theory, a Taser is intended to serve as a non-lethal method of control for law enforcement officers when they need to physically restrain a dangerous person. But as the new Circulation study demonstrates, Tasers cannot so simply be categorized as “non-lethal.” In addition, there are far too many instances in which officers have impulsively deployed Tasers against children, pregnant women and the mentally ill, even though the victims posed no real danger to either the officers or anyone else.
The new evidence that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest and death, coupled with the disturbing trend of officers using Tasers in flagrantly unnecessary situations, makes it all the more troubling that states do not uniformly or consistently govern or regulate officers’ use of Tasers. This means that Taser policies vary greatly between police departments, often leading to vague, outdated and inaccurate guidelines that result in misunderstanding about the misuse of these allegedly non-lethal weapons.
Taser training materials are mostly provided by Taser International, the private company that makes the weapon. Relying on a private, for-profit company that has a vested interest in promoting and selling their product for training guidelines is not only nonsensical, but dangerous. For example, though Taser International advises officers against administering a shock to the victim’s chest, it does not prohibit targeting this area. In fact, Taser minimizes the potential risk of death or cardiac trauma, instead emphasizing a need to insulate police officers – and itself – from the legal ramifications associated with a shock to the chest. The company goes on to recommend against aiming for the chest because “shots to the chest, particularly at close range, are frequently ineffective because of the lack of major muscle groups in the chest area.” It’s not difficult to see why relying on Taser International’s profit-seeking and liability-evading advice, rather than on rigorous and objective scientific evidence, is both unwise and unsafe.
The new Circulation study should provoke us all – including and most importantly law enforcement agencies – to revisit when the deployment of a Taser is worth its serious risks. To be sure, law enforcement officers have a legitimate interest in protecting themselves and the public during potentially violent encounters, and for the victim, a Taser is generally a less lethal alternative to a firearm. But history demonstrates that law enforcement agencies have failed to create and implement Taser training policies that effectively educate officers about the risks involved and ensure that officers only use Tasers when actually necessary. Law enforcement agencies should review and revise their Taser policies so that officers can make informed and responsible decisions about when using a Taser is warranted. Particularly given the increasing – and disturbing – popularity and indiscriminate use of Tasers, police departments around the country must ensure that they use these lethal weapons responsibly, ethically and as safely as possible.