Tasers may pose some health risks, depending on how they are used, and on whom. But in many cases, they can be used as an effective enforcement tool that may ultimately reduce the number of violent assaults, and sometimes even save lives.
Both of these assertions are supported by recent studies, and together they form what may be the consensus view of Tasers—a useful tool with some risk attached. And the view naturally suggests a follow-up question: Given the usefulness and the risks, when are Tasers best used?
A new landmark study, released by the state of Connecticut, begins to explore that question through an extensive examination of how Tasers were used over the course of one full year.
The study, Electronic Defense Weapon Analysis and Findings 2015, was issued a few months ago by the Central Connecticut State University's Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy. Connecticut was the first state to require law enforcement to document Taser use, and the report represents
the first statewide study on how police use them.
According to the new report, police in Connecticut used Tasers 650 times last year. In an interview with Security Management, Ken Barone, project manager and coauthor of the report, says "two big interesting findings" stood out to him after the study was completed.
One was that one-third (33 percent) of the persons involved in Taser incidents were described in police reports as "emotionally disturbed."
The second finding that Barone flagged was that nearly half (49 percent) of those involved in Taser incidents were identified as either possibly intoxicated, or clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
These findings touch on the potential health issues of Tasers, which are electroshock weapons manufactured and sold by the Scottsdale, Arizona–based TASER International, Inc. The electrical probes that shoot out of a Taser deliver a pulsing 50,000-volt shock, which causes skeletal muscle contractions and pain.
TASER International cautions that Taser use may be ineffective against those under the influence of certain drugs. For example, in the last few years there have been various news reports of incidents where Tasers were unsuccessful in incapacitating someone who was high on a drug like PCP and virtually oblivious to pain.
In addition, medical research cautions that using the weapon on someone experiencing a psychiatric crisis may pose a heightened risk of injury.
However, the report also notes that "at the same time, circumstances may exist in which a Taser is the most appropriate option for gaining control of people experiencing psychiatric crisis and getting them into treatment."
For example, tasing a person who is carrying a gun and appears suicidal could ultimately save his or her life, Barone says. (Thirteen percent of Taser incidents in the report involved those described as suicidal.)
The report also concludes that females were much less likely to be involved in Taser incidents, which involved men 94 percent of the time. Black and Hispanic males were more likely to be tased (as opposed to simply warned) than white males. About 30 percent of those who were tased received more than one shock.
Given their findings, the report's authors are calling for further research to aid in the development of evidence-based Taser use policy.
In particular, the authors are calling for studies aimed at answering the following questions: In which circumstances might Tasers pose health risks for those experiencing an apparent psychiatric crisis? In which circumstances might Taser use be a safe option for the officer, the person in crisis, and other people involved?
"We're trying to understand—for people in psychiatric crisis, is this the best tool to be using?" Barone says.
Report authors are also calling for a review of the existing model Taser Use policy that was developed by the state's Police Officer Standards and Training Council. The council's current policy is in many ways less precise than both the Taser use guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Justice a few years ago and the use recommendations that TASER International has made.
Barone also acknowledges that developing specific Taser policy is tricky; it is likely not possible to have a series of hard-and-fast rules that can be followed in every situation.
"It can't always be black and white. Each incident is unique and complex," he says.
However, there does seem to be room in the middle that is more specific than current model policy, but not overly simplistic. The Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy plans on conducting a multi-year study that can track how Taser use in Connecticut is changing year over year, which could be a helpful tool in future policy development efforts, Barone says.