Taser Usage Sparks Controversy; But is it a Result of a Deeper Problem?

Op-Ed 

Retrieved from Guardian

The use of tasers by police has increased over the past few years. In England and Wales during the first 6 months of 2014 tasers were fired over 5000 times.10 Predictably the growth of taser usage is of course coupled with a growing controversy. One side proposes that tasers are non-lethal, less-lethal or sub-lethal in comparison to a multitude of other technologies that are utilised by police.5 However it would be difficult to deny that the use of tasers do occasionally lead to serious injury or death.

In 2013 Israel Hernandez-Llach, a young graffiti artist from Miami died after he was caught and tased in the chest by police after running away from the scene.6 And just recently on the 8th of august, Troy Robinson, a black man in Atlanta died because he was tased while Robinson attempted to scale a wall resulting in him falling and hitting his head.1 These fatalities are in some way linked to taser usage. Although in the case of Troy Robinson, his death wasn’t directly caused by being tased. And in many ways the tasing of both people was justified since both had ran away from police arrest. In fact, the Miami officer who fired the taser at Hernandez-Llach’s was just ruled as not responsible because it was an unforeseeable accident,5 since not all shocks to the chest area is fatal.4

Tasers are used more and more often because when applied properly, aside from pepper spray, they are safest and most effective.7  However there are still risk involved in using tasers, especially for individuals who are suffering from certain health issues or have consumed stimulating drugs. Health concerns related to tasers have become more and more researched and discussed. A multitude of research suggests that with healthy and sober individuals tasers are generally safe when used within police guidelines. However there is the problem that individuals who consume stimulating drugs or drink high amounts of alcohol are at more risk. People who suffer from mental and physical health conditions like heart and respiratory diseases, metabolism syndrome and even common problems like obesity and high blood pressure are at higher risks, especially since they often take medication.7

Aside from unhealthy individuals exceptions like Hernandez-Llach does exit. It was found after autopsy that he died of cardiac arrest directly as a result of tasing and not due to being in a state of excited delirium which is common with individuals who are subscribed anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medication.5

Forensic pathophysiologist, James Jauchem makes a fair point. He finds that the media and even medical professionals often times over simplify or exaggerate the causes of death as directly attributed to tasing, where as other factors contributing to injury or fatality may not be considered. For example a brain injury might not be so much related to the actual electric shock but instead related to hitting one’s head when they fall to the ground.6 Troy Robinson’s death is a more extreme example of this, but even falling from one’s own height and hitting the ground in the wrong position can warrant serious injuries.

Jauchem concludes that most injuries or death are not directly linked to the actual taser.5 and that the benefit of tasers far outweighs the harm that they can produce.4 Whether this is true or false is highly debatable and often changes from case to case but both sides of the argument fail to address the root of the issue. The fundamental problem where police overly rely on their equipment and fail to consider the situational factors presented in front of them. For example the 8 year old, native girl who was confronted by 4 police officers and was tased because they were afraid that she was going to hurt herself or the people around her with the paring knife she was holding.9 Or perhaps the case of Colin Farmer, a 64 year old blind man who was tased after the police officers thought his white walking stick was a samurai sword.8

While neither of the two victims died, the main issue is not just about risks and injuries associated with tasers but also about whether it was reasonable to use them in these circumstances. Although the police on scene had warned the girl that they were going to tase her but chances are an 8 year old probably wouldn’t even know what a taser is. So was it really necessary and appropriate for four police to fire a taser at an 8 year old girl? The court sure thought so, they had concluded that the police present did not do anything wrong and had properly followed the procedures. While it is technically true that they followed protocol…another question comes to mind; why is it that police procedure for disabling an adult is applicable to children? And in general why does the police act so rashly without considering that a young girl weighing 70 pounds might not be able to stand a voltage made to disable adults or that an elderly man might have heart problems that would lead to cardiac arrest if exposed to electricity.

While blind panic probably contributed to the situation these questions also hints at an underlying problem, the issue of clarity between police departments when it comes to using such technology. Based on a US police departmental survey only 31% have banned using tasers on pregnant women and only 10% banned uses on the elderly.3 So with no clarification on ways of handling situations is it really a wonder why problems can occur? Another major issue is rooted within the police system and its training regimen. While life occurrences are highly dependent on situational factors, police work is instead institutionalized, professionalized and standardized. It is often assumed that generic methods can be applied to all situations which can be a problem.11

For example in Ontario all potential hires are trained at the OPC (Ontario Police College) for a short 3 month period with highly standardized material thus a possible solution is perhaps longer training periods with a more diversified curriculum which can help new police officers with critical thinking and ability to work under pressure which is essential in emergency situations.

In the end standardization also has its merits as it serves as a guide for officers in unfamiliar circumstances, thus tackling the issue is much easier said then done. Aside from that, the usage of tasers instead of guns to apprehend a suspect can already be considered an improvement and we should consider that improvements are made only through trial and error. So although the death of people like Harnendez-Llach and Robinson are tragic, and even though it pains me to say this…we should take the time to thank them because newer improvements to both police protocol and technology will eventually be made due to their sacrifices.


Bibliography 

  1. Buchanan, C. B., & Whitney, K. (2015, August 7). Man Tased by Police Falls, Dies. Retrieved from 11 Alive: http://www.11alive.com/story/news/local/2015/08/06/man-dead-after-being-tased-during-police-footchase/31265157/
  2. Gray, K. (2013, 10 12). Death Of Israel Hernandez Rekindles Debate Over Taser Safety. Retrieved from Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/12/israel-hernandez-taser_n_4088777.html
  3. Holder, E. H., Robinson, L. o., & Laub, J. H. (2011). Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons. Washington: National Institute of Justice.
  4. Jauchem, J. (2015). Exposures to Conducted Electrical Weapons (Including TASER® Devices): How Many and for How Long are Acceptable? Journal of Forensic Sciences, 116-129.
  5. Jauchem, J. R. (2015). TASER Conducted Electronic Weapons: Misconceptions in the Scientific/Medical and Other Literature. Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology, 53-64.
  6. Munzenrieder, K. (2015, July 23). Miami Beach Cop Won’t Be Charged Over Taser Death of Graffiti Artist Reefa. Retrieved from Miami New Times: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/miami-beach-cop-wont-be-charged-over-taser-death-of-graffiti-artist-reefa-7773371
  7. O’Brien, A., & Thom, K. (2014). Police use of TASER devices in mental health emergencies: A review. Internation Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 420-426.
  8. Press Association. (2014, 03 26). Policeman must apologise to blind man he shot with Taser . Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/mar/26/policeman-apology-blind-man-taser-samurai-sword
  9. Schilling, V. (2014, 08 19). SD Police Say Tasing 8-Year-Old Native Girl Was Justified, Family Sues. Retrieved from India Country Today Media Network: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/08/19/sd-police-say-tazing-8-year-old-native-girl-was-justified-family-sues-156464
  10. Travis, A. (2014, October 15). Police Use of Tasers Countinue to Rise. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/police-use-tasers-continue-rise
  11. Weisburd, D., & Eck, J. E. (2004). What Can Police do to Reduce Crime, Disorder and Fear. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 42-65.
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