Most people have two ingrained fears. We fear the unknown and we fear situations beyond our control. This is the main area of concern for both TASER International and the law enforcement community. Average citizens do not understand how a taser is a safer, less-than-lethal means of force.
People are fearful of an officer using a taser because a taser creates a temporary disconnect between the brain and one’s ability to control their motor functions. Such a concept is frightening.
We all certainly remember the phrase, “Don’t tase me, Bro!.” The incident went viral across the Internet in 2007 when a University of Florida student was videotaped resisting arrest. A team of officers could not gain control of the disruptive student. The police attempted to acquire control, but they could not do so initially without resorting to using force, based upon his choice not to comply with verbal commands.
Ultimately, he was tased. The officers gained control of the student and he was taken into custody without further incident. Neither the student nor any of the officers sustained physical injuries. Unintentionally, this incident demonstrated the efficiency and effectiveness of the taser all over the world.
Law enforcement professionals and educators must dedicate themselves to introducing the taser and how it works to the public. Many so-called “citizen academies” sponsored by law enforcement agencies are adding a unit to the curriculum to include detailed information about the effectiveness of tasers in protecting the public and reducing officer injuries. Taxpayers must understand the data which supports taser use as being safer, more efficient, and highly effective. All departments must also maintain a system of accountability which tracks taser use each and every time a taser is deployed.
How does it work? A taser interferes with the ability of the brain to communicate with the muscles. In other words, if an individual is a danger to himself, another, or a police officer, the threat can be neutralized temporarily to permit police officers to gain control of the situation. The idea of disabling the brain’s ability to control muscles is a bit disconcerting. Imagine this analogy about how the taser functions from start to finish. During a telephone call, there is static on the line. The static interferes with your ability to communicate, but once the static is removed, the phone call can resume without any damage to the phone (Taser International Website, 2012). This is essentially how a taser interrupts the brain’s communication with the muscles and then quickly reopens the communication channel.
I learned a great deal during a recent TASER Use of Force, Risk Management, and Legal Strategies Seminar in Blackwood, NJ. Rick Smith, TASER’s CEO, shared the mission statement of TASER, which is to protect life. This is the very reason TASER has come to the forefront in law enforcement, as it provides a safer, less-than-lethal force option to the police community.
One of the most eye-opening things I learned during the conference was that the state of New Jersey was the last in the nation to implement taser use. Each New Jersey police agency has statewide jurisdiction and, hence, one cohesive statewide use-of-force policy. In this day of diminishing resources and with the budget shortfalls the state is currently experiencing, they have financed their taser purchase via monies obtained through crime forfeiture proceedings. This is an amazingly creative enhancement of public safety services at no cost to the taxpayer.
In 2011, The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) adopted the term ECW or electronic control weapon. PERF coined this term to address the fact that a taser or ECW is used to help control people who are actively resisting authority or acting aggressively. Another term is electronic control device or ECD. The use of the term ECD versus ECW is mere semantics. Taser is brand name, ECD or ECW is the generic term. We tend to use the term taser interchangeably, just as Kleenex is a brand of facial tissue which we use to describe all facial tissue whether it is the Kleenex brand or not. What is important are the circumstances present which resulted in a taser or electronic control device being used.
A taser is not risk free, but as of November 21, 2011, TASER International reports that outside studies have not made any determination that a TASER X-26 ECD causes cardiac arrest, ventricular tachycardia, ventricular fibrillation, or lethal cardiac consequences in a human being, contrary to many media reports.
TASER provided legal updates, liability management information, and policies by subject matter experts. They also had a physician who addressed the medical concerns surrounding the use of a taser. According to Donald Dawes, MD, a taser has never been identified as the cause of death in an arrest-related death.
Law enforcement professionals now have the opportunity to educate the community about taser use. Public perception of ECW’s will be enhanced by replacing media hype and fear with facts. Taser use will not ever be universally accepted, even when the facts are better understood by the public and the media. However, law enforcement can do a better job of telling our own story.
Law enforcement professionals cannot control public perception, but it can become more transparent with public information about this police tool. Police professionals must do a more effective job of providing information which will help the majority of the public to understand that the taser is a means to deploy less-than-lethal force to enhance public safety and reduce officer mortality and morbidity.
Law enforcement agencies can best manage public perception via a transparent use-of-force policy and corresponding procedures based ongoing case law review and best practices models. Appropriate training and oversight to establish and maintain accountability will enhance public perception in all use of force options, not just taser use.
Learn more about this article here:
University of Florida Student Tased at Kerry Forum 2007 – click here.
The neuro-endocrine effects of the Taser
Jim Gaffney, MPA is LET’s risk management/police administration contributor. He has served with a metro-New York police department for over 25 years in varying capacities including patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant, and executive officer. He is an ILEETA and ICAP member. Jim mentors the next generation of LEO’s by teaching university-level criminal justice courses as an adjunct professor in the New York City area.