Are Tasers non-lethal weapons? Hundreds of deaths say otherwise.

Grassroots movements of people organized under the banner of Black Lives Matter have put law enforcement under a whole new level of scrutiny. The public outcries and unrest of the communities of Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles have unleashed a new push toward a different kind of relationship between communities and law enforcement. One that employs new technologies and techniques. The United States Department of Justice has recommended that local law enforcement explore reducing the use of force, as well as less than lethal and nonlethal alternatives to traditional techniques of restraint.

The first Taser was invented in 1969 by Jack Cover, a NASA scientist. He named the device after his favorite childhood character, Tom Swift. By 1974, Tom [A] Swift’s Electric Rifle (TASER) was completed. The weapon was intended to give police the means to safely disarm and detain aggressively non-compliant suspects, without lethal force or a firearm,

The weapon launches two darts that penetrate the target. The darts are connected to the weapon and the electrodes release electricity (a 50,000-volt shock followed by 100 microsecond pulses of 1,200 volts), inducing pain and paralyzing the person’s muscles, often causing them to fall over. But Tasers have changed considerably since their inception.Their use by law enforcement has been mired in controversy since Tom and Jack Smith formed Taser International (later renamed Axon) with Cover. Sold as a safe alternative to other methods of law enforcement, the corporation has worked very hard to avoid any association with any of the deaths attributed to their product. The effect of the device on the heart only became known after a string of high profile deaths followed the initial rollout of the ‘less than lethal’ weapon.

Dr. Tseng, who appeared at a recent San Francisco Police Commission meeting wrote an article entitled, “Relation of Taser Deployment to Increase in In-Custody Sudden Deaths” which was published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2009:

“Although Tasers are marketed as a safer alternative to subdue prisoners and suspects in law enforcement custody, recent reports have described a temporal association between use of stun guns and  hundreds of in-custody sudden deaths in North America.”

In this epidemiological study of police and sheriff departments of moderate to large cities in California using Tasers, we found a statistically significant 6.4-fold increase in the rate of in-custody sudden deaths not involving lethal (firearm) force in the first full year of Taser deployment compared with the pre-deployment period. Although Taser use has been advertised to decrease Lethal Force Deaths (by firearms) and prevent officer injuries, we observed no decrease in the rate of either event after Taser deployment. To the contrary, departments had a twofold increase in the rate of Lethal Firearm Deaths in the year of Taser deployment and the first full year after deployment, whereas the rate of serious Officer Injuries requiring visits to an emergency room was unchanged” (2009: 879).

Axon is the sole manufacturer of Taser devices used by law enforcement. Today, Axon sells Tasers to law enforcement in over a hundred countries, to over 16,000 agencies, and there are over a half-million Tasers in use by law enforcement worldwide today. The push for reform has spurred the growth of many manufacturers of “less lethal” weapons, an unintended consequence of police reform.

Tasers have been lauded as the solution to violent policing, a safe alternative to guns and batons, but are particularly lethal for the most vulnerable populations: Pregnant women and children, as well as people with heart disease, chronic mental and other physical health conditions. 

On July 19, the San Francisco Police Commission will accept public comment on whether the San Francisco Police Department should have these weapons. This will be the sixth time that the police commission has grappled with this question. All previous attempts have failed due to community advocacy speaking out against the danger—and violence—of Tasers. Once advertised as “non-lethal,” from June  2001 to June 2007, there were 245 deaths in the United States due to Tasers. While have been many changes and improvements on the design of Tasers since 1974, the weapon continues to kill. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that 48 people died in police encounters involving tasers.  In addition, due to many lawsuits the model has been forced to change.  In particular, the weapon has had to be toned down, and according to LAPD, is only effective at restraining people 49 percent of the time.

According to Mike Leonosio, a national expert on the weapon, “San Francisco made the right decision to hold off on adopting this weapon… to date I have still not heard exactly what problem the department is trying to solve with this weapon.”

Re-engineering use of force requires a fundamental shift in policy, mindset and training from the long established approach of rushing in and using command and control tactics to using time, distance, cover and rapport. This is critical for both the public and police officers safety.   Electronic Control weapons are inconsistent with re-engineering the use of force and a policy and training of time, distance, cover and rapport.  A taser is the opposite because it requires close contact with an individual (Think between 7-15 feet).  At a time that requires substantial officer training on how to slow down situations and create time, distance, cover and rapport, a taser—which can only operate by close contact—would undermine the very skills the new training is attempting to develop.

According to training guidelines officers should be more than 20 feet away from subjects armed with sharp edged weapons. It would be safer for officers to use time, distance, strong verbal de-escalation techniques, and wait it out for the person to calm down.  If the Taser is used, de-escalation goes out the window. As Leonisio points out, it is important to analyze exactly what scenarios in which this weapon would be used, and whether this weapon is appropriate for that situation. Many members of the public wrongly believe that Tasers are a replacement for guns, when they are not, and in fact are not recommended for use in lethal force situations by both Axon and the police departments who have the weapon.

What the City of San Francisco must decide is whether it is worthwhile to potentially expose its citizens and officers to more harm. They must weigh the cost to the the department in terms of training, liability and the human cost of using this technology on people.