Should police have Tasers? Eight arguments for and against

The ACC Commission is currently considering a five-year, $2.7 million contract with Axon Enterprise, Inc. for new Tasers and body-worn cameras for the ACC Police Department. Contracts like this might have passed easily in previous years, but recently the commission has been examining matters related to policing very closely. The current proposal has been controversial and was discussed at length by the commission in a three-hour work session in January.

Commissioners Mariah Parker and Carol Myers have voiced support for reducing the Taser part of the contract to two or three years only to avoid locking ACCPD into a long-term commitment that Athenians may not want or need. With two different citizen groups (Mokah Jasmine Johnson’s Civilian Oversight Board and a new Safety and Justice advisory committee) in the process of forming, Parker and Myers may wish to hear community opinion before feeling comfortable voting to approve or reject a long contract.

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

Several other commissioners also had questions about ACCPD deployment of Tasers, but none were as stridently opposed to their continued use as Commissioner Jesse Houle. Houle sent an email to their colleagues on January 28, “strongly urg[ing]” them to consider denial of the Taser part of the Axon contract. This email was well-researched and contained links to a wealth of information on the potential risks and benefits of Taser devices.

With the commission set to vote on the Axon contract this Tuesday, let’s dig into the data provided by Houle as well as the data provided by ACCPD in their presentation at the work session on January 14. [UPDATE 2/16/21: The vote was pushed back until today. The Taser contract passed 8-2, with only Houle and Parker voting no.]

Are Tasers a safe and effective means of apprehending suspects and an important part of the use-of-force spectrum for police? Or are they dangerous and fragile devices, designed primarily to provide monopoly profits for Axon without providing much in the way of public benefit?

Let’s take a look!

Wait, what’s a Taser again?

Tasers are electroshock devices that can operate in two modes: dart mode and drive stun mode. 

Taser X-26
A Taser X-26.
Photo by Junglecat via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Dart is the most commonly-used mode, which allows police officers to stun people at a range of about 25 or 30 feet. When the trigger is pulled, the device will fire two electrode darts capable of piercing skin and clothing. With both electrodes embedded in the target, the electrical current makes a complete circuit, allowing electricity to flow into the target’s body through one electrode and back out through the other. A successful hit with both electrodes will normally incapacitate the target, allowing officers to take them into custody.

An example of ACCPD using a Taser to apprehend a man in 2016.

Tasers in drive stun mode are hand-held devices and thus have a much shorter range. This mode is used to shock the target, causing extreme pain as a way of forcing compliance. Despite the name, drive stun mode does not normally stun or incapacitate the target; the purpose here is to cause pain.

Tom Swift and His Motorcycle

The word Taser is both an acronym and a brand name. It stands for — no joke — Thomas A Swift’s Electric Rifle. Apparently, the inventor of this technology was a big fan of the Tom Swift adventure novels

Axon, formerly known as Taser International, is the largest manufacturer of these devices in the world, essentially having a monopoly on the technology. Axon maintains its dominant market position by either buying up competitors or devastating them with copyright lawsuits.

The argument for Tasers

The Taser contract will save taxpayer money

This contract bundles together maintenance costs for both body cams and Tasers, providing a savings of $400,000 over the five-year contract period, according to ACC Manager Blaine Williams. This is why the Taser question is even coming up at all — Williams is trying to save taxpayer money.

Tasers are safe and effective

Once ACCPD realized that the contract was meeting opposition, they prepared a presentation defending their use of Tasers to the commission. During this presentation, Captain Harrison Daniel explained that Tasers are effective devices that can help police apprehend suspects safely. He continually stressed that giving police more options at different levels of force can only help them in their goal of providing safety to the public.

“The more options we have, the more opportunity we have to create a safe outcome,” Daniel said.

While admitting that “there is no perfect tool,” Daniel cited a 2012 study showing that in 1,201 Taser applications by police nationwide, only 0.25% resulted in a moderate or severe injury to the recipient. These injuries usually result from falls after the subject is stunned, but ventricular fibrillation (an abnormal heart rhythm that is potentially fatal) is also possible in rare circumstances.

Daniel also presented ACCPD data from 2019 showing that Tasers are completely effective in their role at immobilizing subjects 75% of the time and partially effective 11% of the time. They are ineffective only 14% of the time, usually when the police officer misses with one or more of the darts, or when the person targeted is wearing heavy clothes. 

ACCPD’s Taser policy is very restrictive

While some police departments around the country have very relaxed rules regarding use of Tasers, ACCPD takes their use very seriously and has a number of restrictions that make them even safer to deploy.

For example, ACCPD has restrictions against Tasering pregnant women, children or the elderly, except in extreme circumstances. Likewise, if a suspect is in a precarious position where they might take a dangerous fall after suddenly losing control of their muscles, Tasers are highly restricted in Athens. Presumably, this means they would be allowed in these circumstances only when deadly force was also allowed, although Daniel did not directly state this.

As a way of further increasing safety, all ACCPD Tasers shut off automatically after five seconds of electrical discharge. They do not have to be configured this way; many police agencies allow victims to be shocked for as long as the officer holds the Taser’s trigger. However, that would be “too much of a risk” according to Daniel. ACCPD officers must justify each trigger pull individually to make sure the “electrical current doesn’t reach a dangerous level.” 

It’s important to note that Tasers are used very infrequently in Athens as well. ACCPD officers deployed Tasers only 33 times on average over the past 4 years, according to Daniel’s presentation.

Tasers prevent injuries and save lives

Lastly, Daniel claimed that Tasers are safer for both police officers and suspects than other weapons, such as clubs or, of course, guns. He implied that if police have access to Tasers, fewer police officers and members of the public would be harmed during normal police procedure. 

Patrick Davenport, smiling
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

Commissioner Patrick Davenport agreed, saying, “as a Black man, I’d rather be Tasered than shot.” ACCPD Police Chief Spruill, who is also Black, spoke passionately in defense of Tasers. “How much is one person’s life worth? If we save one person’s life a year because we have Tasers, they’re worth it.”

The argument against Tasers

Tasers are expensive to taxpayers

The Taser part of the contract amounts to about $230,000 per year to replace and service ACCPD’s Taser X-26s with new Tasers 7s. If this is being done solely as a way to save taxpayer money, it would be even cheaper not to do it at all.

In their email to the commission, Houle points out the poor bargaining position that Athens has in negotiating with a monopoly producer like Axon. Monopolies tend to drive up prices at the expense of quality over time, so we might end up paying even more in the future for a worse product. 

“Given the built-in obsolescence of these devices, we can expect similar if not greater pricetags in perpetuity,” Houle wrote.

Some reports indicate that the new Taser 7s are actually less reliable with a higher miss rate than the current model in use by ACCPD.

One police officer’s opinion on the Taser 7. “It’s a piece of crap.”

Tasers can be harmful, even deadly

Amnesty International has tracked at least 500 people who died after being shocked by Tasers from 2001 to 2012 in the US.

Axon denies that Taser application had anything to do with these deaths. The company makes repeated claims that their products are safe, supported by scientific studies that they fund themselves. Unsurprisingly, these studies come back saying that Tasers are safe and that they are not responsible for any deaths that happen after subjects are shocked.

Nearly 30% of the studies cited by Axon in defense of Tasers were funded by them or have at least one author who has been paid by Axon as an employee or consultant, according to Reuters. Axon maintains close relationships with researchers and police agencies alike, and is quick to make legal challenges against anyone who challenges their narrative regarding the safety of these devices.

However, the study presented by Daniel finding that Tasers cause mild or no injury 99.75% of the time does not appear to have been funded by Axon, and there are many similar studies showing the same thing, both in the field (like the study Daniel presented) and in more controlled experiments. It’s safe to say that Tasers are safe… when used on healthy, sober, white male police officers, who are almost always the only volunteer test subjects for these weapons.

When Tasers are used in the field, the target population is quite different than the ones used in most studies. In their review of the academic literature on Tasers, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center cites a 2011 study showing police more often than not tend to use Tasers on those under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, or on those with mental illness. 

Stanford researchers then quote the Police Executive Research Forum’s 2011 guidelines on Tasers which warn of a “higher risk of sudden death in subjects under the influence of drugs and/or exhibiting symptoms associated with excited delirium.” Put together, this means those whom Tasers are most likely to be used against are simultaneously the most vulnerable to their affects and the least studied.

Even if Tasers are found to be almost always safe, they can be dangerous in certain circumstances. For example, Tasers can be dangerous for those with pacemakers, or when the darts strike an unapproved area, such as the face or upper chest.

Tasers may do very little to prevent civilian injuries or save lives

The research on Tasers consistently shows that Tasers do reduce injuries to police officers who have access to them as claimed by Daniel and Spruill. These are typically minor to moderate injuries resulting from a hands-on approach to taking suspects into custody that is avoided with the use of Tasers.

But when looking at injuries to civilians, the story can be quite different depending on the study. While many researchers do find a correlation between Tasers and reduced civilian injuries, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center doubts this conclusion. They found methodological errors in many studies and pointed to others showing that Tasers can actually increase injuries to suspects.

Stanford researchers were unable to come to a solid conclusion about whether Tasers decrease injuries to civilian suspects, finding that the results of the studies often depend on the assumptions held by those doing the experiment. They lament the lack of good data and reliable research on this topic, saying that “even the best empirical studies in this field are riddled with caveats that limit the confidence readers can place in their results.”

However, when it comes to the life-saving potential of Tasers, things are a bit clearer. After exhaustively searching the scientific literature, Stanford researchers conclude that “there is very little evidence to support th[e] claim” that Tasers reduce the use of lethal force by police. 

Houle made this point in the work session, asking police why Tasers were not deployed during any of the six police shootings in Athens in 2019. Spruill responded by saying “when you have a person who is within a few inches of striking you in the face with a machete, those are not the kind of situations when the Taser would be appropriate. Deadly force will be the response for deadly force against the officer.”

Tasers can discourage police from using de-escalation tactics

Lastly, the Stanford review notes one study where the researchers express concern that the availability of Tasers may actually discourage the use of de-escalation techniques by officers. Unfortunately, Stanford “found no research that attempted to directly compare the effects of de-escalation techniques” with that of Taser deployment. So, it’s currently unclear if de-escalation tactics could reduce or even eliminate the need for Tasers, but the possibility exists.

Conclusion

Despite the completion of numerous large-scale national studies on the use of Tasers by police, much about the effects of these electroshock weapons still remains unclear. 

The most robust finding in their favor is that they tend to reduce injuries suffered by police in the line of duty. This may be enough for the commission to approve the $230,000 a year it takes to upgrade ACCPD’s Taser equipment to the new Taser 7s and provide for ongoing maintenance for them, but that’s a far cry from claims that the devices are a lifesaving necessity.

However, even if the commission refuses the contract, ACCPD will continue to use the older X-26 models going forward. Currently, only 42% of ACCPD’s Tasers are covered by warranty, and if they break, ACCPD will likely purchase newer models to replace them anyway. 

Therefore, it’s best not to look at the commission’s decision on Tuesday as a final decision on the use of Tasers in Athens. The civilian task forces being formed will have a chance to weigh in on this question regardless of what the commission decides. This is perhaps only the beginning of a larger discussion on Tasers and the use-of-force by police more broadly in Athens.

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