19 November 2006

When Should a Tazer Be Used?

A while back I posted a video from YouTube about a kid getting tazed in a university library. Comments here and elsewhere made me think that maybe I should post laying out what I think the different levels of force should be generally.

Hand to Hand - This ranges from grabbing someone by the arm and yanking them out of their car thru the all too typical struggles when people resist being handcuffed all the way to out and out brawls. Typically, most confrontations do not go above this level.

Capstun - The second most often used tool in a physical confrontation, this is more commonly known as "macing" someone. This is what usually happens when an officer perceives that someone is proceeding to physical combat against him or is being very resistant. It is painful and takes away sight and breath but has a low risk of actual harm. One problem is that it does not always work. Anyone who has spent any time with officers has heard them tell stories of people whom the spray did not effect. Another problem is that some officers do not like the spray. I've heard more than one officer complain about how using it can mean he gets it in his eyes and lungs as well; of course, this is both painful and dangerous for the officer.

Nightstick - I can't remember the last time that I heard of an officer using a nightstick (when not wearing a pink bunny suit). I think that, in general, it has been supplanted by capstun on the less lethal side and tazers on the more lethal side. There are circumstances wherein neither of those two options is valid and the nightstick is called for (like the capstun spray or tazer malfunctioning) but the nightstick isn't likely to be used as much as it used to be.

Tazer - This is a step down from the use of lethal force. Tazers should be used in those situations wherein the officer is faced with serious harm or death but can avoid it by using the tazer instead of using a firearm. An example of this would be an officer facing down someone with a knife. There are obvious reasons why an officer should not close with this person. Prior to tazers the options would have been to put his life in significant danger by closing with the knife wielder or use of a firearm. Now the officer can stand off and incapacitate the knife wielder without putting himself in danger.

There are obvious dangers with applying an incapacitating electrical shock to a person. There are persistent anecdotal claims of death caused by use of tazers and I strongly suspect that at least some of them are well founded (although it would seem to be a very small percentage). Unfortunately, some appear to be in denial over this and when sold tazers seem to be marketed as a replacement for capstunning. They're not. The potential lethality - if only for those with medical conditions or of a certain age - means they should not be used as readily as less lethal means. HOWEVER, this does not mean that tazers should not be available for officer use. The probability of killing someone thru the use of a firearm is much higher that it will ever be thru the use of a tazer. Faced with a valid choice between tazing or shooting an officer should taze every time.

Rubber Bullets - Although I've heard of prisons using these (and rubber grenades), I've never heard of police forces (I may be showing some ignorance here). Rubber bullets are a less lethal option. I say less lethal because if rubber bullets hit a vulnerable spot (eye, temple, etc.) they can be deadly. However, in most applications they are not. This option is something which could be used if the knife wielder mentioned above was down the street, beyond the range of the tazer's wires. It is also a method for use against groups of people; if charged by a group of people rubber bullets are an effective means of breaking the charge.

Lethal Force - Not going to insult everyone by telling them that this means the officer is required to use a firearm.

---------- ---------- ----------

Drawing bright lines as to when escalation should occur is almost impossible. Factors which will cause different reactions will be the person confronting the officer (an 80 year old grandmother is going to get treated differently than a 350 lb. steroid freak), how many officers are present, how many non-officers are present, and probably an infinite number of other factors. Each situation must be addressed according to the situation at hand.

One thing we must remember is that the officer is nor require to "fight fair." He is allowed to react in a manner which is meant to insure his safety and bring the situation under control. This means that he can escalate beyond what is offered to him. Of course, the reaction must still be proportionate and that will vary from case to case. If the 80 year old grandmother calls him a "whipersnapper" and swings her purse at him he isn't going to be justified going for his tazer. On the other hand, if the 350 lb. steroid freak comes out of his car mumbling something about God's vengeance and starts chasing the 140 lb. officer the officer could very well be justified going straight for the tazer (maybe even the pistol).

So, I am left with the question: how would I advise officers in a similar removing a resistant person from the library situation to act. I'd advise them to "lay hands" on the guy (do police everywhere use that phrase?), put him in handcuffs, and then hook him under the arms and drag him out like they finally did. If he does anything stupid - resist getting handcuffed, flop around on the floor to keep you from lifting him, hook feet in doorframes, yell for others to jump you - capstun him. Get control and get him out; don't give the mob time to form.

Steve, you did this sort of thing for a living once upon a time. Comments? (or from anyone else)


Tom McKenna said...

Good summary of the "use of force continuum" as I call it when I'm teaching law enforcement folks.

My only change would be to include at the beginning, use of verbal commands as the lowest level of "coercion" in response to a non-comliant offender.

Tom McKenna said...

One other amendment I would have: I think tasers belong lower on the continuum. They are in reality quite safe in the vast, vast majority of situations and do nothing more than cause physical discomfort. It belongs, in my view at or slightly above the level of capstun.

This kid in the library was not just going limp, but was actively resisting. The taser use was an "incentive" to gain comliance and was both moderate and justified given his resistance, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

"HOWEVER, this does not mean that tazers should not be available for officer use."
I can't remember how often I have read that line.
Law enforcement, and I count prosecutors right in that group, always claim they need all the tools lest the nation fall apart in utter lawlessness. They ensure the public the tools will only be used in strict compliance with all those cumbersome rules and regulations and then ... they fail to hire people of the necessary personality and they fail to train and supervise them properly.

Ken Lammers said...


Actually, that's not the case I was making. Police can keep the nation from falling into utter lawlessness with firearms and nightsticks. More people would be hurt or killed, but order would be maintained.

My argument relies more upon the thesis that making police avail themselves of these various other tools is actually to keep those whom the police come into conflict with from being harmed unecessarily. They are tools allowing a graduated response.

Anonymous said...

Point taken Ken.
A taser is less lethal than a gun any time. Could that knowledge perhaps lead to overuse though? What troubles me is the apparent need for many cops to enforce their authority rather than be measured and try to handle the situation with the least damage possible.

Windypundit said...

When I was in college at the Illinois Institute of Technology the campus cops had guns but not nightsticks or, as I recall, any other non-lethal weapons. I asked why, and was told this allowed them to confront dangerous criminals (IIT was in right next to some projects) but discouraged the kinds of cops who might enjoy roughing up a few snotty students. I can't say if it worked, but nothing happened in the ten years I was there to suggest it didn't.

(On the other hand, one of the cops got into a gunfight when some guy tried to rob the cashier's office. He and the robber were both wounded. I remember going over to look at the bullet holes in a vending machine.)

Anonymous said...

In the use of force continuum, you don't just start with "hand to hand". And the specific tools used at each level are incident only to the definition of the level itself.

1. Command presence. Many times, our presence alone is enough show of force.

2. Verbal commands.

3. Weaponless strategies. This is "laying hands" on the subject.

4. Non-lethal weapon strategies (OC, taser, rubber bullets, baton used non-lethally).

5. Deadly force.