Welcome to the 21st century; the dawn of a new age of enlightenment, an age of prosperity. Welcome to a world without crime. Anyone who walks out the door, watches the news, reads the papers, or looks out the window can tell that this article isn’t going to go the route of claiming we’re in a utopian society. We are human, we make mistakes, and we will always make mistakes. The world will always be an imperfect place. Crime will always exist, but what have we done to fight it? The development of less lethal weapons for police officers has been going on for years. The word taser is a common one in households. Have they helped or hindered our society?
So what are tasers anyway? A taser is a weapon, hand held, either in the form of wire-trailing projectiles from a handheld launching platform like the X-26, or a contact device, designed to be pushed against the target. Police issue almost exclusively involves the handheld launcher, so we’ll focus on that. When the officer squeezes the trigger, a launching mechanism, either gas or explosive powered, propels two steel prongs with wires attached to them towards the target. Upon contact, these wires send an initial fibrulating jolt of electricity to stun the target. It then maintains a low voltage pulse keeping the body’s neural network from re-asserting control over the body. In this way a suspect can be arrested without worrying about retaliation, resisted arrest, or fleeing an officer. But why are these weapons so intensely controversial, and why are we even discussing what seems to be such a perfect tool for law enforcement?
In January of 2011, in Halifax, a 17 year old girl is acquitted on charges of resisting arrest. Why? Because she was in an argument in her bedroom over a purse, and with no apparent threat to the officer, her sister, or her mother who phoned police, the girl was sat on by a law enforcement officer, and stunned with a taser. This was ruled unlawful. January 24, Vancouver; transit authority officers tase a man causing a scene outside an event attended by Governor General Michaelle Jean. December 20, 2010, police in Ottawa tase a grade 11 teenager who, distraught by a breakup with his girlfriend, was walking through traffic, asking for cars to hit him (Martin, 2011). Most recently, April 9, 2011, an RCMP officer discharged his taser against an eleven year old boy, making the boy the youngest person to be stunned by a taser in Canadian history. (Hadaway, 2011)
I hope I don’t need to impress further the importance of why we consider this topic seriously, with sound and attentive minds. That we track down the problems, and not just the apparent sources. It’s easy to blame the tasers for the injustices listed above, but are they really the problem, or a misrepresented solution? In my opinion the stance from Amnesty International seems to say they are at least a part of the problem. In a 2008 report entitled “USA: Less Than Lethal?” they link 334 deaths to taser use in the United States, between 2001 and 2008 (Amnesty International, Cited in Czech 2009) To put this in perspective, that is slightly less than 48 deaths per year due to taser weaponry. When compared with their lethal, and even non-lethal counterparts, the fatalities attributed to tasers, even by Amnesty International, just don’t begin to add up. All the same, the events above are obvious proof that something isn’t quite right. And it’s all of us, as private citizens, that are being hurt by it. But what can we do?
What other options are there for less lethal stopping force? The quick list would include a number of options starting with pepper spray. While we all know that pepper spray is painful, and for quite a long period of time, the range of the spray is limited to about 10-15 feet, the stream can be deflected by wind, and the canister itself can either run out of propellant simply because of time unused, or in hot weather, it can burst without provocation, rendering the canister useless (Holly & Jeff, 2009).
Bean bag rounds have been in the law enforcement arsenal for many years now. They’re very popular thanks to the fact that they can be used in virtually any stock 12-guage shotgun, although the rounds must be manually cycled in a semi-automatic or tactical shotgun. They’re cheaper than virtually all ballistic non-lethal rounds, and their long, sixty to 100 foot ranges. However, since they rely on blunt force trauma, they can cause major injuries, break bones, cause bleeding, and even death in the target. Being fired from existing shotguns may be convenient, but when it comes down to it, there is no way to know for absolute certain whether the weapon you just picked up is going to fire a bean bag, or a 12-guage slug (Fourkiller, 2002).
Water cannons are rare outside of riot situations. They’re overkill for a single target, require calling in a pumper truck, and while the delivery system is already in existence, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t designed for the harmless arrest of human beings. They receive all sorts of trauma from impact with the ground, with walls, and with debris. They can only be used outdoors, and require waiting for the fire truck to arrive.
There are still standard hand to hand and batons, but these are essentially the same thing from a safety perspective. Both require engaging the target in close range fighting, they work off of strength which fills the officer with adrenaline, leading to mistakes, and a lack of judgment in their strength which leads to lethal blows. Moreover, it suffers the same failings as any other blunt force trauma solution; unnecessary injury and pain to the target, and a high chance for a blow in the right spot to go well beyond subduing the target, and edge straight into crippling or killing them.
Finally, you have the taser. It has a longer range than most non-lethal options, the stun effect has a low sustaining voltage which reduces the chance of death or severe injury, it doesn’t rely on blunt force trauma, and it has a unique design making confusing it for another, more lethal, weapon is unlikely. Dr. Bozeman, funded by the National Institute of Justice, studied 1,201 tasings, and in those 1,201 cases, only three resulted in anything more than minor scrapes and bruises from having fallen when tased. Of those three cases, two of them were just minor head injuries, resulting from the fall onto concrete. The third was a case of rhabdomyolysis, which is a disease by which the body breaks down muscle tissue. However, according to Dr. Bozeman, the cocaine, heat, running, and resisting arrest were most likely the cause of the presentation of rhabdo, not the taser (Cezch, 2009).
Why are tasers a better option than pepper spray? The range, the M-56 and the X-26 both have a much longer effective range than the 10-15 feet of pepper spray canisters. They have no expiration date, or lessened efficacy over time. The human body can, through repeated exposure, or through drugs, either feel no pain or not acknowledge the pain that pepper sprays rely on to incapacitate the target. And finally, the wind and pain just aren’t factors, as tasers directly affect the muscles in the body.
What about bean bags? Bean bags do have the edge in range. They do, however, rely on blunt force trauma, they can break bones, and most importantly, the design of a taser is unique, where bean bags are a specific shell put into a generic shotgun. The last thing you want, even if there Is a way the officer’s department has set up to determine the difference, is for the officer to make a mistake and pick up the wrong shotgun, or worse, to have loaded the wrong ammunition.
Hand to hand and batons. Do I even need to mention them? They rely on blunt force trauma to stop the suspect, they interfere with judgment by way of adrenaline, they break bones, they’re based on the officer’s having more skill in fighting than their opponent, and last but not least, a taser doesn’t have to stop the target long enough to fight In order to stop the target long enough to arrest them.
Surely the taser has its own drawbacks, right? Yes, the taser has plenty of its own. They’re more expensive. They can’t be modified into existing weapons, so the officer has to get used to a brand new grip and firing technique. It requires specialized training, It can cause an arrhythmia in the target, and as such, can possibly be lethal. Its range is lower than bean bags. But perhaps most importantly, the public still has a dim view, and in a way, that’s the most dangerous thing police are facing today. They are forced to choose between keeping the taxpayer happy with what they are doing, and arming themselves with weaponry which has the power to take down suspects without killing them, or endangering the officer more than they already are.
Ignorance, however, is the greatest of all threats that the taser produces. The people are ignorant of the powers and responsibilities of the use of a taser. The officers are ignorant of their proper use, and what is capable of stunning, and what will kill. The departments are ignorant of what they need to do in order to properly train and handle officers with tasers. This kind of ignorance needs to be fought, not fed. And this nation seems perfectly happy to feed it until it’s grown fat and corpulent.
What do we do? We start with education. We educate our officers on how to not mistreat the tasers, such as using them on eleven year old boys. We educate the departments in how to manage taser policies, training, and investigations. We educate ourselves on the product before we start to fight its use. We legislate policies, limitations, and procedures for every foreseeable outcome of the use, and misuse of tasers, as well as requiring the officers carrying them to take courses in not only how, but when to use them. And we investigate every single discharge of a weapon, be it a taser, bean bag, or pistol, like it was live ammunition, to ensure that every suspect’s rights are being preserved.
Tasers are here, and if we don’t acknowledge them and govern their use, if we allow police to use them at any time without repercussions, then we’ll wind up losing all of our rights. How long before it’s your daughter being pinned and tased while helpless, over a purse? How long before it’s you? One man, one woman, one voice can make a difference. Your voice will be heard by others, who will carry the message. Demand taser policies from your local law enforcement. When a child is tased, demand to know why. Do not just sit back and assume it was done because it must be. Remember that law enforcement is there to protect and serve you, not the other way around. They owe us justice.
This article (C) 2011 Shaun M. Horton, reproduction in whole or part without expressed permission by the author is a violation of US Copyright Law. For permission to reproduce, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Cezch, T. (2009, February 21). Taser Fatalities Studied. York, Pennsylvania, USA.
Fourkiller, L. (2002, March 1). Less-Lethal: Bean-Bag Rounds. Retrieved April 12, 2011, from Police; the Law Enforcement Magazine: http://www.policemag.com/Channel/Weapons/Articles/2002/03/Punching-Bags/Page/2.aspx
Hadaway, B. (2011, April 9). B.C. boy youngest Taser recipient: professor. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Martin, D. (2011, April 9). Standards needed for stun gun use; The technology has its place, but not everywhere. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.