latimes.com reports that the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Seattle and Maui police used excessive force by deploying two TASERs (one in each case). In the Seattle situation, the cops stun-gunned a seven-month pregnant woman using the drive stun method (no prong). In Maui, officers used a stun gun on a woman involved in a domestic dispute. What did we learn from all that, then? Well, for one thing . . .
The cops’ actions didn’t jibe with accepted police policy. In fact, most U.S. police agencies have stun gun deployment policies developed according to recommendations from TASER International. Our department has 15 guidelines on when, where and how to use the Dart Firing Stun Gun (DFSG). Here are some examples of how NOT to use it:
1) As a cattle prod
2) Use in a punitive manner
3) During an interrogation
4) On helpless or disabled people
5) Children under 12 or appear to be
6) A pregnant person (unless exigent articulable circumstances necessitate the use)
These are guidelines—and only guidelines. As the old Zen expression says, the map is not the territory. Officers respond to thousands of calls a year. Each one is different. At any one of these calls a civilian can go from 0 (cooperative) to 60 (war) in a blink of an eye. Although police are trained to recognize certain behaviors that indicate a person is overwhelmed with emotion (to be PC about it), they have to judge the totality of the incident in a very short time.
Mistakes are made. Sins of omission and commission. Truth be told, a TASER is only as effective as its user’s training. And nothing—other than experience—can train an officer to process all the factors that lead to a TASER deployment. Nor can an officer be fully prepared for the wide range of responses to the threat of a TASER, or what happens when they pull the trigger. Unless they’re trained (as they should be) to expect the unexpected.
As police TASERs become more commonplace (welcome New Jersey!), the public / bad guys are more prepared for them. Plenty of perps are aware that thick clothing can prevent a TASER’s barb from making skin contact. I’ve seem suspects waving shirts and towels to defeat the probes. I have TASED people who have been shocked before who just ride out the five seconds of pain, rip the wires out as soon as it’s over, and flee.
A police officer deploying a TASER must remain vigilant to the possibility of its failure, but they should also have compassion for the people on the receiving end. And after a TASER incident, trainers and administrators should analyze its effectiveness. They should not be afraid to change their stun gun policies to protect the public and the police department’s best interestes—without compromising safety for civilians or peace officers.
Luckily, when courts rule on police matters—especially when they rule against law enforcement—you can be sure that policy change is coming and coming fast. Which is exactly how it should be.