Police procedures for TASERS have been evolving ever since these electroshock weapons were introduced in 1971. A TASER (also known as a CEW, for conducted electrical weapon) is a device that fires two small, dart-like electrodes that deliver an electric shock. Over the years police officers have found TASERS extremely useful—even lifesaving—in encounters with violent suspects.
But TASERS are relatively new to criminal justice. Scientists are still studying the physical effects of their electric shocks, and legislatures are still trying to decide how to regulate this weapon. Police officers need a thorough understanding of issues associated with the user of TASERS.
When the TASER (a trademarked name) was invented, it was widely hailed as a humane alternative to the weapons that police officers usually carry. A TASER delivers a 50,000-volt shock that overrides the central nervous system and causes instant collapse, allowing officers to restrain suspects and prevent dangerous outcomes.
But over the years, unforeseen problems with TASERS have arisen. TASERS aren’t legally classified as firearms, so there many legal questions remain open. As a result, officers who fire TASERS may not have legal protection if something goes wrong.
A second problem is that scientists are still researching the effects of electric shocks fired from TASERS. It’s clear that a young, healthy person will not suffer serious harm from a TASER. But these weapons have not been extensively tested on other subjects who may be suffering from a wide range of medical conditions.
Most seriously, numerous injuries—even fatalities—have been associated with police use of TASERS, and courts have awarded large claims as a result.
Here are some medical findings about TASERS:
- There’s a possibility of significant injury if the TASER is deployed into sensitive areas of the body such as eyes, throat, or genitals.
- Medical conditions that increase risk include osteoporosis, asthma, and previous muscle or spinal damage.
- A TASER can create serious outcomes if the subject is taking psychiatric medications or using illegal substances.
- Miscarriages have resulted when pregnant women were shocked by a TASER.
- Even a healthy person might lose control, fall, and suffer serious injury.
Can these risks be minimized? The answer is a cautious yes. Criminal justice experts have issued guidelines for appropriate use of a TASER.
- TASERS should be used only as an alternative to lethal force on persons who pose a serious threat. The TASER is designed to shock and disorient a violent suspect for a short time so that police can use handcuffs or other means to head off possible danger.
- Other, less drastic techniques should be used to subdue a person who is unarmed. Officers should be aware of the difference between compliance and control. TASERS are not effective compliance devices—in fact the opposite is true. A TASER decreases the likelihood that a suspect will obey an oral command: The shock temporarily disables a suspect’s central nervous system, increasing agitation and confusion.
So a TASER should not be fired at an unarmed person who is out of control—a defiant teenager, for example. And it should not be deployed if there are signs of alcoholism, substance abuse, or mental illness.
- Officers should always be aware of possible risks of TASER use. A TASER shock that would temporarily disable a healthy person may be lethal to someone who is medicated, either legally or illegally. Another problem is that officers have no way of knowing whether a suspect has osteoporosis, asthma, or some other condition that might worsen from a TASER shock.
- If a TASER shock is necessary in a potentially violent situation, police should hospitalize the suspect rather than trying to remove the TASER barbs themselves. Medical personnel should monitor the suspect for shock-related complications.
A TASER can be a valuable—even lifesaving—tool when deployed appropriately. Any officer who has been issued a TASER needs to carefully review the appropriate policies and procedures for its use.