Following the August 24, 2012 police shooting of a murderer on a New York City sidewalk that left the killer dead and nine bystanders wounded, I wrote two articles relating to issues raised by that event (available here and here).  However, in comments from readers here at SMM and commentators elsewhere, it’s clear that is some interest in Tasers, but not a great deal of accurate information out there in the popular media.  I hope to provide a glimpse of real world reality.

On March 23, 2012, I wrote an article for Gun Values Board titled Personal Defense: The (Non) Viability of Less-Than-Lethal Technologies.  The article was written in response to a reader inquiring about beanbag rounds for shotguns, but ventured into Taser territory as well.  Among its interesting features is a link to the video of a particularly odd 1997 confrontation between the Seattle Police and a Katana (Japanese sword)—wielding man.  The standoff lasted eleven hours and ended safely but unconventionally.  Multiple beanbag rounds and other less-than-lethal technologies were used, but were entirely ineffective.

Regarding the NYC shooting, a number of readers noted that the NYPD apparently does not issue Tasers to patrol officers as do many contemporary law enforcement agencies, and speculated that if the officers involved had been armed with Tasers, nine bystanders might have been spared injury.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.  While I recommend you read the GVB article in its entirety, here is an excerpt that might help to explain:

During my police service, I participated in evaluation and training of a variety of different less lethal technologies running the gamut from various physical striking and restraining techniques–unarmed and with many kinds of batons or similar instruments–to bean bag rounds, to chemical sprays, to various hand-held shocking devices to Tasers.  I’ll explain in more detail, but perhaps the best way to sum up my practical experience with all of these things is what I came to call the “sober police officer in training rule.”

The SPOIT rule essentially states that any striking or restraining technique, or the application of virtually any less lethal device will tend to work splendidly on sober police officers undergoing training in clean, dry, well-lit gymnasiums or dojos.  However, the same techniques or technologies are highly likely to unexpectedly and spectacularly fail in the real world when applied against people who are drunk, drugged, enraged, don’t care how much pain they have to take, or are just so mean, stupid or stubborn they’ll endure just about anything to get to whomever they’ve decided they want to hurt.

I saw the same thing over and over, year in and year out.  Techniques and technologies that worked beautifully in the gym often failed catastrophically in the field when used on people who didn’t know they were supposed to submit.  Departmental rules forced me to carry Mace—and eventually pepper spray—but I seldom used it, and never used it in enclosed spaces.  Whenever I did use the stuff, all that happened was everyone in the immediate area—especially cops–ended up with running noses and watering eyes, and coughed and sneezed as they continued whatever confrontation caused me to use the stuff in the first place.

Tasers are an interesting development in weaponry, but they occupy a surprisingly narrow realm of usefulness for civilians and for the police.

Taser C2

This is a Taser C2 model, available to the general public.  It retails for $379.99.  All Tasers (brand name) work on the same principle.  Using a light propellant charge they fire two barbs that trail thin wires attached to the device.  If they hit solidly–and stick in the skin–they impart a low amperage/high voltage shock to the subject, interrupting the nervous system.  Very few people can resist such a shock, which commonly causes the subject to immediately drop to the ground and spasm helplessly for varying amounts of time.  The range of these devices is as great as 30 feet for police models with more powerful propellant charges.  Some police models incorporate small video cameras for obvious reasons.  Civilian models often have only a single cartridge—one shot.

Taser X-26

This is a police-only Taser X-26.  It has two separate cartridges and is shaped more like a handgun.  Most officers wear them in a belt holster in a crossdraw configuration.

In the GVB article, I noted one compelling reason why the agencies for which I worked did not issue Tasers:

To use handheld shocking devices, I had to get much closer to violently dangerous bad guys than I wanted, and they often merely grunted, yelled “OW!” or jerked so violently away there was no real effect.  I never did use Tasers on the street because I worked in the upper Midwest and West, and we couldn’t be reasonably sure the barbs would penetrate the heavy outer clothing most folks wore most of the year.  Standing there with your limp little Taser wires splayed on the ground before you while the fact that “you just tried to tase me bro!” dawned on the person you just tried to incapacitate is not only embarrassing but very dangerous.

THE USE OF FORCE CONTINUUM:

Police officers operate under the general principles of a use of force continuum.  This continuum will vary from agency to agency depending on which alternatives are authorized.  It is also affected to some degree by differences in state law.  But it has two primary principles: (1) an escalating use of force dependent upon the perceived threat, and (2) officers are generally allowed to employ force one step higher on the force “ladder” than that being used against them.  A general force ladder might look like this (from the lowest to highest levels of force):

(1) Command presence (the officer’s mere presence and bearing);

(2) Requested compliance (an officer’s calm and reasoned requests for cooperation);

(3) Authoritative commands (the officer’s use of verbal commands in a “command”—loud and compelling—tone of voice;

(4) Open hand restraining techniques (essentially laying hands on a suspect and using a variety of wrestling and or pain compliance techniques);

(5) Impact weapons (usually a collapsible baton).  Tasers usually fall into this category, or should;

(6) Deadly force (use of firearms, which are always employed only to stop, never to warn or wound a suspect).

While officers are generally expected to ascend the use of force ladder one rung at a time, it is entirely possible such ascension might occur within seconds, or the actions of a suspect might progress from the requested compliance stage to the need to use deadly force in an instant. It’s important to keep in mind the fact that impact weapons, if used improperly or on improper targets on the body, might very well become deadly weapons.  Tasers also fall into this category, and there have been many cases where suspects shocked by Tasers, particularly when shocked multiple times within a brief time frame–or by multiple Tasers wielded by multiple officers–have died.

On one hand, the police like the idea of Tasers very much.  Properly employed—when they work—they are very effective and immediately subdue dangerous people.  This prevents injuries to the officers and to suspects.  The Taser website provides many cases where the use of their products had the intended, fortunate outcomes.  Unsurprisingly, they do not provide cases where the unintended occurred.  Google can provide all of those stories one might need, but being cautious about the sources might be wise.  On the other hand, the opportunity for using Tasers responsibly is, as I noted earlier, surprisingly limited.

Theoretically, when an officer can use open hand techniques, they might also be justified in using a Taser.  However, wise officers, understanding that Tasers can be deadly, might wish to wait.  If they have sufficient assistance to grapple with and subdue a suspect, that’s probably a smarter idea, however, a lone officer faced with a particularly dangerous suspect might be justified in using a Taser.

When impact weapons are clearly justified, the Taser likely is too and might arguably result in less injury to the suspect.  Unlike the heroes in martial arts movies, most police officers do not have a high degree of proficiency with impact weapons.  Their only training might occur at the academy, with—if they are lucky—the occasional refresher course during a long career.  Rather than surgical and highly effective strikes to vulnerable portions of the body that cause immediate and dramatic incapacitation, many officers end up just whacking the stuffing out of people, which, justified or not, looks just awful to bystanders.  Much better to use a Taser, because if it’s done right and works right, the bad guy will quickly fall down, be handcuffed, and there is no horrific footage for You Tube.

But as I noted earlier, if one of the barbs does not fully penetrate the bad guy’s clothing, or if he is able to rip them out before the shock can be triggered, an officer will likely be facing an even angrier and more determined attacker and might end up having to employ deadly force.

Tasers and Deadly Force:  To put it as simply as possible, Tasers are absolutely not a substitute for deadly force.  In January of 2012, I wrote a seven-part series on the rationale for gun ownership.  In the fourth article of that series, I outlined in detail the doctrine of deadly force—the circumstances under which deadly force may be legally and morally employed.  I recommend that article for background information I don’t intend to provide here.

Any officer using a Taser when circumstances dictate that any other reasonable police officer should have used his handgun will likely be in serious trouble and might find himself seeking less dangerous employment.  If one is comfortable using a Taser rather than a firearm, that is a tacit admission that the requirements for the use of deadly force are simply not present.  Remember, Tasers aren’t supposed to be deadly, that is, in part, why officers who kill people using Tasers are generally in real trouble.  They aren’t supposed to be used when deadly force is required, and they aren’t supposed to kill people when deadly force is not authorized.

The NYC Situation (visit the first article in this three part series for a link to the video of the shooting):  The two officers approached from behind the suspect who, spotting them, removed his handgun from his briefcase, quickly turned, and immediately pointed it at them.  At that point, the officers were absolutely at the top of the use of force ladder and had no choice but to employ deadly force.  While the closest officer was within Taser range, and was not spending his time dancing while shooting, Tasers are less accurate than handguns, have rudimentary sights at best, and are slower to employ.  They are intended to be used at short range and with adequate time to be sure they will be on target and thus, effective.  This was not such a situation.

The second officer absolutely had no chance to use a Taser.  He was far less prepared than the first officer, and spent his time dancing sideways while frantically shooting one handed at the stationary suspect.  The suit worn by the suspect might well have prevented adequate penetration by the Taser barbs, particularly as the second officer was continually, spastically moving, not aiming at all, and shooting one handed in a panic response.  I suspect neither officer would testify that they saw the sights of their weapon, and if honest would testify that they had no idea of their backdrop.  They will surely understand the wisdom of testifying that they were entirely aware of their backdrop but shot up the crowd anyway because the situation was so dangerous to the crowd they shot up (yes, that’s irony).  NYC police officials were all but commending them within hours of the shooting anyway.

Final Thoughts: 

While I can think of a situation—almost certainly involving a SWAT team with sufficient time for adequate planning and preparation—where Tasers might be employed in deadly force circumstances, in those situations, at least one officer would be covering the suspect or suspects with firearms in case of a miss, malfunction, or other failure of the Taser system, and surprise would almost certainly be involved.  With the exception of situations where someone might be holding a dangerous weapon like a knife and not immediately attempting to use it, patrol officers might never employ a Taser in a potentially deadly force situation.  Another rare possibility for patrol employment might be someone trying to commit suicide by cop, but this kind of situation is absolutely fraught with danger because the guy who appears to lack the nerve to actually shoot at or stab a cop one second, might summon it the next.  Because anyone in Taser ranger is almost certainly in knife range (see The Tueller Drill), and surely in firearm range, any Taser use in this sort of situation would almost certainly have to be done very spontaneously, very fast, and would absolutely require that another officer or officers cover the suspect with firearms.  Remember that I am not recommending such things, merely observing they might be—barely—possible.

For civilians, the same rules of deadly force apply.  Anyone employing a Taser when they should be using a handgun is quite simply asking to die.  This is particularly so with civilian Tasers which commonly have a single, short range shot.

The officers in this case were indeed justified in using deadly force–despite the fact that their justification was provoked by their poor tactics–and the use of less-than-lethal weaponry would have been not only inappropriate, but negligent.  My issues remain the NYPD’s poor choice of weapons and triggers, its apparently inadequate training, and the officer’s poor tactics and situational awareness.  They were right to shoot, but better tactics might have prevented the need to shoot at all.  They were also very, very lucky that of the nine innocents shot, none were killed.  In this situation, the cost of the use of a Taser could easily have been the lives of the officers and other innocent bystanders.