The Taser is one of the most beneficial tools ever developed for law enforcement. The Taser is one of the most beneficial tools ever developed for law enforcement
FEATURED IN TRAINING
A Taser electronic control device (ECD) is not the modern rendition of the fantasy Star Trek phaser. Nonetheless, recent public reaction and media reports about Taser’s revised warnings and preferred target areas suggest a mentality that an ECD must stun and stop a bandit with perfect precision, no risk, 100% effectiveness and guaranteed perfect outcome in all circumstances. Research indisputably shows that ECDs have significantly reduced injuries to both suspects and officers. A statistically small number of people, however, have been injured during law enforcement force applications involving an ECD.
In its recent Training Bulletin 15.0, Taser prescribed a revised frontal target area of the “lower center mass.” It advises “splitting the belt line,” dropping the point of aim to deliver one probe into the lower chest area and one into the pelvic region or upper thigh. The optimal target zone remains the back area, below the neck line.
Taser offers three reasons for the revised preferred target zone. First, splitting the belt line increases the probability that the ECD will be effective in immobilizing the subject. Second, lowering the preferred point of aim lowers the probability that a probe will inadvertently penetrate the neck, face, eye and head. Third, avoiding the heart area as a target zone minimizes an allegation that the ECD deployment contributed to cardiac injury and death.
The Media Response
Taser hoped to minimize controversy with the adjusted preferred target zone. Within hours of the Training Bulletin release, news headlines stirred controversy, with quotes from pundits and perennial ECD critics. CNN featured ACLU claims that there has been insufficient medical research on the effects of ECD deployment. The ACLU repeated its call for law enforcement to suspend ECD use until its lawyers see further medical research.
One physician spoke out criticizing medical research on the basis that researchers didn’t use test subjects with unhealthy lifestyles, such as chronic drug abusers or alcoholics. Cardiologist Phillip Matsis noted that criminals “don’t lead very healthy lifestyles and could well be suffering heart disease that they’re not even aware of.” Matsis said that the criminals’ poor lifestyle decisions were more important in the safety analysis than the target zone. On the other hand, reproductive medicine specialist Richard Fisher told reporters that he didn’t believe that an ECD probe strike to the genitals would cause fertility problems, observing that it was no more injurious than being hit by a ball in a sporting event.
The Legal Response
The announcement delighted plaintiffs’ attorneys. Suing Taser and law enforcement agencies for ECD deployments hasn’t been profitable. Approximately 100 lawsuits have been filed against Taser International, alleging injury or contribution to death. Nearly each one has been summarily dismissed or resulted in judgment for the manufacturer and the law enforcement agency.
In an update for California chiefs and sheriffs, veteran police defense attorney Martin Mayer observed that it would almost be malpractice for plaintiff’s attorney to not try to present Training Bulletin 15 to a jury in an alleged ECD injury case. Should a plaintiff happen to suffer some cardiac injury, the plaintiff’s attorney may use the bulletin to muddy the waters, alleging that the ECD contributed to the cardiac injury, despite overwhelming independent medical research to the contrary.
Attorney Bruce Praet, trial attorney and author of many risk management policies used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies, cautioned against knee-jerk reactions to the Training Bulletin. Praet warned that policies that ban chest shots may actually impose greater liability risks on an agency. Theoretically, an agency’s policy shouldn’t create liability when the policy is more restrictive than established law. That theory doesn’t always work; insurers may get skittish when an officer’s perfectly reasonable action taken in the heat of a tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving incident also violates an agency policy. There’s no established law holding that ECD chest probe deployment is unlawful. A policy banning chest hits might be cited by a court that’s anxious to travel down that path, particularly by a court not educated on ECD deployment, safety and effectiveness.
What is the practical impact of the revision to the preferred target zone? Foremost is more effective neuromuscular incapacitation (NMI) if both probes hit the preferred target zone and there is good probe spread. The Training Bulletin reminds officers that ECDs are far more effective when probes are deployed accurately, as contrasted with drive-stun mode. Probe mode has always been the preferred deployment method with the M26, X26 and new X3 ECDs. Probe deployment allows stimulation of peripheral motor and sensory nerves, resulting in immobilizing involuntary muscle contraction. The NMI is what overrides the subject’s ability to continue aggressive or threatening actions and provides a window of opportunity to capture and control him or her.
NMI is most effective when the electric charge is delivered to large muscle groups, and the upper chest has relatively shallow muscles covering the rib cage—which shunts 83% of the delivered charge. ECD instructors recognize that splitting the belt line with probe placement on a frontal deployment usually results in less total force, less struggle and quicker capture and control. Oklahoma City Police Master Sgt. Blake Webster said his agency has been teaching officers to aim lower for years. They’re instructed to try for a probe spread that includes the lower abdomen. “We’ve taught the officers to split that ab and split the belt, because you get them bending over, which gives us the window of opportunity to handcuff them.”
Some instructors point out that a lower center aiming point improves effectiveness of deployments on persons who are heavily clothed, for example, oil and gas field workers in severely cold climates who layer clothing and wear a heavy canvas shell. Taser asserts the shaped-pulse technology is capable of transmitting an effective pulse through a cumulative 1.6 inches of clothing. The groin and upper thigh area usually aren’t as heavily clothed as the chest. However, Major (Ret.) Steve Ijames, who frequently leads less-lethal technology instructor programs and was a founding board member of the National Tactical Officers Association, recounted an effective ECD deployment in Kotzebue, Alaska, on a subject dressed for -35º, in one of America’s northernmost cities. Ijames noted that he’s taught “a below sternum aiming point for several years in order to reduce the probability of an accidental neck/face probe contact, and the need to increase the probability at normal ops ranges of ‘splitting the belt’ for effectiveness.”
A potential downside to the revised preferred target zone is the possibility that an officer acting in the stress of combat won’t have time to precisely aim and will instead instinctively fall back to a true “center mass” point-and-shoot deployment. Success of a high thigh shot won’t be as likely on a moving target during a tense and rapidly evolving encounter. Splitting the belt line means firing one probe “below the belt.” A probe hit on the genitals isn’t likely to cause significant epidermal damage and may be very effective in stopping the fight.
The new X3 ECD features a Range-adjusted Dual Laser Sight that has a 7º separation between the two laser sights when used with a 15–25' range cartridge. I recently fired several cartridges from the new X3 and found the laser sight allows an officer to more precisely aim and determine the point of impact of each probe. An officer transitioning from an ECD with a single laser sight to the dual sight system will obviously require retraining and practice. It may well be that an officer deploying the X3 ECD with the dual laser system during rapid combat would instinctively use the upper laser sight to aim at true center mass, thus probably unintentionally achieving a probe spread that effectively splits the belt line.
Risk Management vs. Risk Elimination
Dennis Tueller, famous for developing the Tueller Drill for teaching distance principles, recounts a story of a Russian police officer responding to a question about the apparent lack of manual safeties on a particular Soviet handgun. With a puzzled expression, the Russian faced his American colleague and bellowed, “Is gun! Is not safe!” Except for the mythical Star Trek phaser, I have yet to see a perfectly safe law enforcement weapon.
Despite the claims of the ACLU and others, ECD use has been studied extensively by the medical, scientific, bioelectrical, and engineering professions. The verdict’s in: ECDs are effective and safe. Dr. William Bozeman’s 2007 study conducted for the National Institute of Justice studied 1,201 Taser ECD field deployments. Note: Dr. Bozeman and others have studied actual deployments on the unhealthy people, the drug users, the mentally ill and emotionally distraught—the people police often encounter. In 99.7% of the deployments there was no serious injury. A study published earlier this year in the Annals of Emergency Medicine showed a risk factor for serious injury following an ECD deployment of 0.25%. The significant reduction of officer and suspect injury rates due to use of an ECD instead of another force option is well-documented inresearch and actual results.
Taser’s Training Bulletin notes that claims of sudden cardiac arrest due to ECD deployment leave an agency to disprove a negative. That’s not an easy proposition in a courtroom. Lowering the point of aim in the preferred frontal target zone helps eliminate this possibility. Moreover, a lower point of aim reduces the chances of an errant hit in the head, neck or a female breast.
It would be a serious misstep to abandon the ECD as an effective tool for street and correctional officers. It would also be a mistake for agencies to improperly respond to the Training Bulletin by banning upper chest shots. They will happen in the tense, uncertain and rapidly-evolving situations where police go every day. Any policy revision should state that the lower chest area is the preferred target zone when the back isn’t available. Our agency has already revised its policy to acknowledge the preferred frontal target zone, while recognizing that the dynamics of a confrontation and the best officer safety practices may not always allow time for targeting probes at a precise area. Remember: A revised policy requires retraining.
The nature of confronting lawbreakers involves occasional injury. Today’s infrequent injuries associated with ECD deployment are far less significant and frequent than those following blows from a straight stick or other impact weapon. Taser took a bold step in revising the preferred target zone; they did it for the right reasons. The change has generated much discussion about how we use ECDs and what safety measures we take. It seems to me that’s part of professional progress.