Photo Dale Stockton
The two latest EMDs on the market: the TASER (left) and the Stinger (right). PHOTOS COURTESY TASER AND STINGER SYSTEMS
FEATURED IN TRAINING
About a year ago, Chief Mike King of the Prairie du Chien (Wis.) Police Department contacted me regarding the controversy swirling around the use of TASERs by law enforcement. The chief sits on the tactical skills advisory committee of the Wisconsin Department of Justice Law Enforcement Standards Board, and the committee was examining the TASER, its use and its level of applied force.
King knew I tend to collect training information and asked what might be available regarding TASER. Turned out I had more than 50 news articles regarding TASER and, of course, the controversial associated deaths, injuries and lawsuits.
I have always operated on the principle that a well-trained police officer equipped with the correct tools can accomplish the tasks at hand. There were not many less-lethal force options back when I started my career in 1977. However, I subscribe to the he-with-the-most-toys-when-he-dies-wins philosophy, and that certainly applies to police work. Any technology that enhances officer safety or makes the job easier, I’m all for it.
A Look Back
There have been a lot of changes in our equipment; just look at the evolution in flashlights and batons over the past 25 years. Consider the large Kel Light compared to the diminutive Blackhawk Gladius light, and think about the fact that every baton used to come standard with a metal ball for rib racking. Now a baton can collapse and fit on your duty belt, so it’s always with you, not attached to the spring clips on the door panel or the prisoner cage.
In 1986, I purchased my first can of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray and remember how officers reacted when I discussed its apparent advantage over mace. Twenty years later, it’s pretty standard equipment among police officers nationwide. However, OC, like any new tool, also had its growing pains. Initially, it was claimed to work on everybody. (“It’s like having a cop in a can,” one promotion claimed.) Some departments went as far as discontinuing baton authorization. Well, OC doesn’t work effectively on everyone, and most departments reauthorized the baton.
Enter the EMDs
Nova Stun Gun, Tasertron, TASER and the recently released Stinger fall into a category of less-lethal devices I’ll call electro-muscular disruption devices, or EMDs for short. Probably most of you reading this article were not police officers when the Stun Gun (which is not a gun) and Tasertron were introduced. However, neither of these two devices received much hype, and their usage was not widespread. (The Tasertron did have a brief role in the 1976 Dirty Harry movie, “The Enforcer.”)
Why did the Nova and Tasertron not prompt daily headlines? Primarily, it was due to a lack of risk takers in law enforcement management. Few want to be the first to try new, unproven technology in the real world. Another significant factor: The use of force has been looked at quite differently since the Rodney King incident, whether law enforcement admits it or not.
Yes, there are risk takers out there. Two I hold in high regard include Chuck Mader of the Bloomingdale (Ill.) Police Department and Steve Ijames of the Springfield (Mo.) Police Department. In past conversations with both of them about force options, they have offered remarkably similar answers: In essence, if the new technology can reduce injuries or death, it needs to be explored, plain and simple. Mader’s department was one of the first to adopt the Nova Stun Gun and OC. Ijames’ department is noted for its use of beanbags: Springfield’s SWAT team custom-fit beanbag shotguns onto Stoner-designed M-16s/AR-15s and MP5s. Now, Springfield is adopting that same concept and mounting EMDs to its entry firearms.
OC, beanbags, batons and EMDs have all been blamed for causing and contributing to death. However, the real issue is not how many deaths have occurred, but the number of deaths and injuries these tools have prevented. This information must be distributed to both the civilian and police communities. Although there’s no way to accurately determine how many force applications of OC have occurred, the number of deaths associated with its use remains extremely low.
Ijames is considered a worldwide authority in the use of beanbag deployments. His instruction focuses on the philosophy of less-lethal deployment, not the mechanical application of firing the beanbag. In my opinion, he’s absolutely correct. We know that when an officer deploys a beanbag, there’s a high risk of injury. But, based upon the National Tactical Officers Association’s (NTOA) less-lethal database, the injury will not prove life threatening.
The associated risk of injury must outweigh the other force options. This requires abstract thinking and possibly using a lower level of force than authorized by either statute or case law. Usually the examples cited for analysis are an elderly armed individual (possibly suicide by cop) or somebody who intends to self mutilate. Many less-lethal options remain excellent choices, but officers must navigate an entire matrix of decision making. The primary factors to consider include:
1. Are time, distance and/or shielding available to the deploying officer(s)?
2. What weapon is the subject armed with?
3. What intent has the subject displayed?
Get the Word Out
• 68-year-old Grandma TASERed.
• Cook County Illinois Medical Examiner rules cause of death as TASER.
• Officer uses TASER on autistic 15-year-old.
Less-lethal weaponry has faced a withering barrage of negative publicity, and it seems the media seizes every opportunity to portray these tools in a negative light. Law enforcement officers must take steps to get the facts out to the public. Here are some suggestions:
1. Look for opportunities to tell the media how less-lethal weaponry prevented a more serious incident or saved a life. When you take someone into custody using less-lethal force and the media inquires about the arrest, make a point of saying how the use of less lethal was successful and probably prevented a more serious outcome.
2. When an incident turns deadly, law enforcement usually doesn’t know what happened until an investigation is completed. Reporters will jump on these stories and write, “Less lethal was used, and then the suspect died.” The inference is obvious. Try giving them a little bit more of what you do know, e.g., “The suspect was violently resisting and the officers used less lethal in an effort to avoid serious injury or the use of deadly force.”
3. If your agency has experienced a significant reduction in officer-involved shootings or injuries due to the use of less-lethal force (as many have), tell the media. In general, the recent surge in EMD usage has precipitated a corresponding drop in deadly encounters and officer/suspect injuries. This is probably the greatest part of the untold success story of these devices: They’re saving lives and preventing injuries. We must ensure our citizens are aware of it.
4. If a usage or deployment seems questionable or more information is needed, tell reporters a review of the incident will be conducted and, if there was an inappropriate use of force, it will be addressed. If this makes you uncomfortable, remember that if we stop holding ourselves accountable, we will quickly lose the public’s trust and the empowerment to use these tools that work so effectively. —ed.
Adapt, Improvise & Overcome
CREATIVE USE OF TASER SAVES A LIFE
At 1846 HRS on Dec. 4, 2005, dozens of 9-1-1 calls came into Carlsbad (Calif.) Police Department dispatch reporting a van crashing into several cars in an apartment complex. Corporal Jim Aladits and Officer Gannon Maszk responded and found the van on fire with the driver still in the driver’s seat, staring straight ahead with his hands clenched to the wheel. He seemed oblivious to the raging fire and billowing smoke filling the van, and he physically resisted their efforts to get him out of the vehicle.
Maszk pushed from the passenger side as Aladits pulled the subject from the driver’s side, but the subject’s grip on the wheel was too tight, and he had wrapped his right leg around the seat making him even more difficult to move. Maszk realized the only way to break the subject’s death grip on the steering wheel was to convince the muscles to let go and, in a split-second, decided to use his department-issued TASER. He communicated this to Aladits, the senior officer on scene responsible for appropriate in-field actions. Aladits nodded his approval, and with a stun touch to the right bicep, Maszk got the subject to reactively respond and release both hands from the wheel. The right leg remained clamped around the seat until Maszk used the TASER again, causing the subject to reflexively extend the leg and making it possible to wrestle him from the van.
The officers dragged the combative subject away from the burning vehicle, and paramedics subsequently treated him for relatively minor injuries. It was later determined the subject had gone into diabetic shock and was totally unaware of the accident and his near brush with death.
You won’t find this type of response in any type of how-to training for vehicle rescue, but it certainly worked in this situation. It’s a great example of cop ingenuity at its finest and another example of how effectively an EMD device can work in certain situations. —ed.
Inform & Educate
I have never seen the amount of media hype generated by the legitimate use of a police tool as I do when officers use EMDs. Every time an officer uses an EMD in an incident that results in a death, it’s front-page headlines along with the deceased’s high-school photo.
A lot of controversy (and misinformation) was generated by Amnesty International’s 1997 report, “Arming The Torturers: Electro-shock Torture and the Spread of Stun Technology.” This report tries to blur the lines by citing the degrading use of stun belts in courtrooms and two accidental applications in 1994 and 1995.
Allegations of EMD-related deaths date back to the 1980s in Los Angeles. Amnesty International cites 16 deaths in its 1997 report and quotes a forensic pathologist’s report stating, “Certain medical conditions, including drug use and heart disease, may increase the risk that the TASER will be lethal”; “The 16 TASER-related deaths in Los Angeles indicate a failure of the TASER as a non-lethal weapon”; and “In my opinion, the TASER contributed to at least nine deaths.”
Not surprisingly, the ACLU has also jumped on the anti-TASER bandwagon and issued a scathing 25-page report calling for a legislative ban on TASER, except as a last resort before using deadly force.
Somehow the use of EMDs for legitimate less-lethal force applications is lost among the use of electro-shock as a means of torture, mostly among third-world countries. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the correlation between the two.
In addition, there’s insufficient information to render a conclusion that the applications actually resulted in death. And Amnesty International gives no guidance and/or direction for how law enforcement should or could have handled these circumstances without using an EMD.
In fact, plenty of studies support the use of EMDs by law enforcement, and we have only ourselves to blame for not educating the public regarding their effectiveness. Research indicates a tremendous reduction in injuries to both arrestees and officers once EMDs are employed and an associated reduction of workers’ compensation claims as an added bonus.
Some departments have reported very dramatic results attributed to the field deployment of EMDs.1 In Columbus, Ohio, excessive-force complaints dropped 25 percent, arrestee injuries went down 24 percent and officer injuries dropped 23 percent. Cincinnati reported arrestee injuries dropped 40 percent and officer injuries dropped 70 percent. Suicide-related use of deadly force also declined. Frankly, I can’t locate any research that does not follow a similar trend of reductions.
This kind information is not effectively reaching the public, but it must. For tips on how your department can help close the information gap, see “Get the Word Out,” p. 56.
I asked King what he thought about EMDs after he had reviewed my information and participated in the committee’s research. He says that after spending several months hearing testimony and reviewing hundreds of pages of information, “The EMD is a terrific tool when used in a prudent manner by a trained officer.” But he cautions, “It’s essential that we do not overuse the EMD or use it under borderline circumstances. It’s still a weapon and it must be deployed as such.” Wisconsin has decided to amend its basic academy instruction to include EMDs, and King says the Wisconsin force continuum was amended to place EMDs just above OC.
Of all the less-lethal options offered during the past 25 years, EMDs have prompted the most intense debates and the most significant force-continuum changes I have seen to date. As law enforcement professionals, we must adopt and adhere to a common-sense approach to stem negative publicity and make a conscious effort to educate the public. Regardless of the weapon, we must exercise restraint when appropriate and not utilize force just because we can. EMDs have altered our perspective of force and put us several steps closer to “setting our phasers on stun.” Bottom line: Use any and all levels of force wisely.
1. TASER published this information on its Web site, www.taser.com.
Shawn Beane has been a police officer since 1977 and has taught firearms, defensive tactics, officer survival, special operations and less-lethal courses. A founding member of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association, he also serves on the board of the Illinois Police Instructors and Trainers Association and the Midwest Tactical Officers Association. In 1996, Shawn started his own training company, SMILE Police Training. SMILE stands for survival management instincts for law enforcement.