How Dangerous are Tasers?

March 31, 2009 | | Comments Off on How Dangerous are Tasers?

Tasers are often thought of as non-lethal alternatives to firearms. Police often use them when dealing with a less than cooperative suspect. The recent death of a young teen has caused many to question the safety of tasers. Officers in Michigan tasered the young man in self-defense, when he attempted to fight them off. When police saw how the young man’s body reacted to the taser, they sought medical care for him, but it was too late. From the little information known about the case thus far, it appears as though officers were justified in their use of the taser, and took appropriate measures when they realized that the young man was seriously hurt. This case raises the question of what makes tasers so dangerous? Is it that tasers are inherently unsafe? or is that officers are not using them correctly? It is probably a combination of the two.

The Michigan case is not the first instance where a suspect died after being tasered. However, most of the time tasers do not cause serious injury. Scarring, neck, and eye injuries occur only sometimes. When a suspect is injured after being tasered, it usually is not caused by the instrument itself, rather the injury results when the person falls to the ground after experiencing the electric shock. Sometimes the injury is not physical at all. In 2004, UCLA police tasered an Iranian- American student. The student did not have his school ID while in the library. He was asked to leave, but he refused. The police tasered him even though the student did not pose a threat. The incident caused him great humiliation. It is speculated that the police reacted with the taser because of heightened anxiety about terrorism. Even if that were the case, their actions were still inappropriate.

Tasers are not per se excessive force. The court in Draper v. Reynolds relied on three factors to determine that use of a taser on a hostile truck driver did not amount to excessive force (Ethical Constraints on Taser use by Police). The use of the taser was acceptable because:

  1. There was a need to use force,
  2. The relationship between the need for force and the force used was reasonable, and
  3. The extent of the injury caused was not unreasonable.

Tasers are weapons of intermediate non-lethal force. They are meant to provide the appropriate balance between protecting officer’s safety and controlling unruly suspects. They are ideal because they inflict an adequate amount of pain, are unlikely to cause long-term injury, and can reach a suspect up to twenty-five feet away. Taser International, the main provider of tasers used by police departments, credits it’s product with reducing, rather than causing injuries. The company claims that use of tasers has reduced suspect injures 79% and spared 9,000 lives. It also claims that the taser has one of the lowest litigation risks among force tools.

Taser International blames the increased injuries caused by tasers on the increased use of drugs and alcohol by suspects. This proposition is supported by the fact that a person on drugs is unlikely to follow the verbal instructions given by police, is more likely to resist police, and more likely to be irresponsive to pain. As a result, when police resort to tasers and other force tools they must use them with greater frequency and force in order to gain suspect compliance.

Though Taser International stands behind its claim that tasers are for the most part life savers and not killers, others are not so convinced. According to a New York Time’s article, Taser International has conducted very few tests on their tasers. There primary studies consisted of tasing pigs and dogs. Also, the tests were not conducted by independent researchers and never published in a peer review journal. Taser also tests its products on police officers, none of which have been seriously harmed. According to the Times, the officer volunteers are usually only shocked once and the shock lasts less than a second. This is not an accurate representation of how tasers are generally used by the police. When an officer tasers a suspect, the shock usually lasts for five seconds. An electric shock that lasts too long can cause fibrillation which leads to cardiac arrests. It is not clear how much fibrillation is necessary to cause cardiac arrest in humans because tests to determine the that are too dangerous to conduct. A Department of Justice study conducted tests on an electrical weapon that is not as powerful as the taser, and discovered that it may cause cardiac arrests if used on people with a pre-existing heart condition.

Nevada legislature is so concerned with taser safety that it has proposed a bill to restrict police use of the weapon. The bill would require all police tasers to be equipped with a camera which would record each use of the taser by officers. Footage captured by the cameras would be open for public viewing. The bill would also limit the circumstances under which police could use tasers. Only suspects who committed a violent felony or suspects officers believed posed a threat of bodily harm could be tasered.

The problem with the second category of acceptable use is that whether a suspect poses a threat depends on the officer’s subjective belief. Much deference is given to the judgment of officers and it seems unlikely that their claimed belief that a suspect was a physical danger would be questioned. Even officers acting in good faith make mistakes about the dangerousness of suspects. This legislation leaves open a loophole for mal intentioned officers to get away with using unreasonable force on suspects by simply claiming “Ooops I thought he was dangerous”

Taser’s seem to be a necessary evil. Police need to be equipped with something to restrain suspects that is less harmful than a firearm yet more powerful than a nightstick. The only plausible solution seems to be for police to be prohibited from using tasers unless absolutely necessary. Necessity depends so much on the individual officer’s perception, so courts will probably never be able to truly determine if an officer acted reasonably in using a taser on a suspect.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user trb_photography.


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