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Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Associate Editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.
Patrol

A Shocking Proposition

Do officers equipped with TASERs still need backup? You bet they do.

June 06, 2008  |  by - Also by this author

I received this question in our "Ask the Expert" mailbox the other day, and I felt it needed a comprehensive response. It reads: "One of our department personnel recently commented (something to the effect) that the effective and proper use of TASERs has reduced the need for backup officers. Any thoughts on this?"

I thank the poster for taking the time to share this question with the rest of us. And yes, I do have some thoughts on it.

First, to think that a fellow law enforcement like the officer on the poster's department would claim that TASERs have obviated the need for backup officers is stunning.

Don't get me wrong. Personally, I love the TASER, having been witness to its efficacy in numerous field situations. I believe that officers should have a variety of less-lethal options available to them, and I would be hard pressed to think of another less-lethal tool that is as widely deployed and equally effective as the TASER.

Indeed, the public's growing awareness of the TASER is such that it has even gained the psychological impact of a shotgun being racked: Once aware of its presence, many subjects display instant compliance. Those who don't become converts soon enough. You can watch testimony from the converted at this link.

But as much as I am a believer in the TASER, I also believe even the strongest TASER proponents would pause before claiming that the TASER has negated the need for a backup officer.

And with good reasons.

For one, the TASER is much like any other tool. Sometimes when you use it, it doesn't achieve the effect that you hoped it would. A suspect's size, his or her degree of intoxication, the distance between him or her and the TASER wielding officer, the type of clothing he or she is wearing, his or her movements, and other factors can reduce the effectiveness of a TASER.

In a study of the Seattle Police Department's first-year use of the M-26 TASER, officers were able to make "verified TASER contact" only 86 percent of the time. The reason for this is easily understood; people tend to move when you try to TASER them.

That same Seattle study documented that in five percent of the cases in which contact was confirmed, the M-26s did not deliver "a disabling or partially disabling effect." This was probably due to weak batteries in the TASERs. And I would bet that the results are better with the X26, and its improved battery pack.

The Seattle study doesn't mean that the TASER isn't a great tool. Believe me, it is. I would put the TASER's success rates up against any other less-lethal weapon, and I would win that bet.
But there are times when a TASER should never be deployed such as when you are confronted by a suspect wielding a firearm. Sadly, more than one officer has paid the price for thinking otherwise.

Such realities factor into how we handle volatile field situations and why we appoint designated shooters, less-lethal weaponry officers, and arrest teams. These clear-cut areas of responsibility simultaneously give us a wide range of force options while freeing individual officers from the distraction of having to make some split-second use-of-force adjustment. Such designations of force options have helped officers successfully end thousands of field situations involving everything from domestic disturbances to agitated drunks to violent offenders of all stripes.

Yes, I can imagine situations where a TASER has mitigated the need for a backup officer. But in a vast majority of such cases, I believe that determination could only be made with the advantage of hindsight and well after the incident has been resolved.

This is part of the reason that I find a categorical claim that the availability of TASERs in the field mitigates the need for a backup officer is not only grossly irresponsible, but a prescription for disaster. Not only does such thinking encourage "one man army" attitudes, it also removes other options such as the availability of a second officer who may develop a rapport with the subject in question, thereby negating the need for force.

Personally, I think we need all the backup we can get. I'm an advocate for two-person cars. Realistically, I know that we ain't going back to that system. But I do think it's reasonable for us to expect sufficient field coverage so that officers have a realistic expectation of prompt backup.

My read of the poster's question leaves me with the nagging suspicion that someone on his agency may have been trying to use the availability of TASERs to justify an environment wherein backup officers are either not deployed or not requested, probably to save money.

And that concept is not only stunning, it's dangerous.

Tags: TASER, Less-Lethal Force, Calling for Backup


Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

ROB ROY @ 6/10/2008 8:47 PM

Anybody that think's a patrolman doesnt need a back up because he/she carries a taser is a complete idiot. That is unless someone comes up with a force field for all of us

David Moore S-55 @ 6/11/2008 7:40 PM

Excellent training – safety advice, the less than lethal tools compliment not take away from the human interactions. I’m a strong follower of always using backup when available, as a Taser cannot see or hear potential problems brewing attacks – aware backup can! Where I lived we had two subdivisions close by that were known as trouble spots w/gangs. These areas are located next to fields and irrigation ditches/canals. During potential vehicle stops drivers would lead you onto, into, either to flee or set you up for being attacked. If it involved unknown risks (most do), the potential in this area of gang members on board – and likely you could expect two and up to six inside vehicles and likely armed. There is another reason for this route to ditch weapons into darkness hard to locate. There are also many calls for service adjacent to these subdivisions “Loud music, fights, shots fired, domestics etc. The disadvantage is you have to use lights giving away your position otherwise end up in drink, or stuck. The key to officer/deputy safety is always knowing how this maze connects in this area surround access streets, so backup – responding units, can use to seal escape routes with show of force – lessen chances of conflict when they bail. This is an extremely dangerous area even with the support of K9, Air units, factors of terrain/low light. Your officer’s safety should always take precedence over money, that’s what leaders do!! Period!

dfeleccia @ 6/12/2008 6:25 AM

Recently, a Florida deputy respponded to a domestic where the male subject was on a porch at the rear of the residence. As the deputy approached this subject, he saw where the subject had a knife. The deputy pulled his Taser and ordered this subject to drop the knife. Upon deploying the Taser, there was no effect (unknown if one probe missed or what the reason was) and the subject now began stabbing the deputy. The deputy was finally able to pull his duty weapon in an attempt to shoot this subject shot himself in the leg and finally, did fatally shoot the bad guy. The deputy received several stab woounds and a gunshot wound. I posted the newspaper article for my patrol officers to see and read so they know that as great a tool the Taser is, it is NOT the tool for every encounter. I can understand what the deputy was trying to do but when a subject is threatening you with deadly force, then your response should be at least equal if not greater than theirs.

pmrpelican @ 5/1/2009 11:39 AM

Back up Officers are a necessity no matter what type of call you go on because you never know what may happen. Okaloosa Deputy's Lopez and York were attempting to arrest an individual after a Domestic Violence incident. One of the Deputy's utilized a TASER but after the 5 second second cyle ended, the suspect immediately produced a concealed handgun and killed both Deputy's (may the rest in peace. ), and I just attended their funerals. Dont ever think that your weapons are a cure all and dont ever cancell your back up just because you think it is a routine call. I pray for the Families of Deputy's Lopez and York and for all brother and sister officers in the field because the violence is out of control

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