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Do We Still Need Batons?

Have TASERs and OC made the handheld impact weapon obsolete?

March 01, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

A part of law enforcement iconography since the early 19th century, striking instruments such as the baton have not been without their share of criticism both in and out of police stations.

Critics see impact weapons as cylindrical conveyers of carnage, holding primal appeal to the "batter up" sensibilities of abusive authorities. Defenders say that they have historically filled a use-of-force gap between fisticuffs and firearms.

Some experts say that the use of striking weapons is contributing to their obsolescence. Nothing looks worse on video than footage of a cop hitting someone with a club, even if it is justified. Such images and the lawsuits that they have spawned have hastened research and development of such incapacitators as chemical agents and TASERs.

Of course, TASERs and OC have their critics as well. And some people characterize their use as "brutality." But if you asked most Americans to draw a portrait of "police brutality," odds are it would show a cop with a baton or some other "club." The images of the Rodney King video and the accounts of the Malice Green case have burned the image of cops using impact weapons into the minds of the public.

And as with TASERs, OC, handguns, and every other weapon used by law enforcement, batons have been the target of calls for bans on their use. But unlike most other police weapons, there are cops that wouldn't miss them.

A Difficult Carry

East Coast-based use-of-force instructor Dave Young says that he isn't surprised at the vilification of the baton.

"Society wants to blame the use of a product or a weapon rather than the training of our own personnel [for these incidents]," Young says.

But despite such controversy involving the use of striking weapons, Young says they still have a place on your belt and in your hand when things get tense. "Batons are probably one of the most valuable tools a police officer can have on his belt. They don't malfunction. They provide you with greater distance from the threat in lieu of having to use deadlier force. You will never hit a person harder with your hand than you will with your baton. The baton is the best equalizer, the best low technology weapon on a law enforcement officer's belt," Young says without reservation.

Young's defense of the baton focuses on its effectiveness. Other trainers say that it can be very effective, but they add that many of today's officers aren't skilled with it and would prefer not to carry it for a variety of reasons, including comfort.

"I've always found the side-handle baton a difficult carry. And I'm not alone," says Texas-based use-of-force instructor and retired officer Louis Marquez.

Marquez and others say that batons are becoming obsolete because officers don't want to carry them, and they are often under their car seats when they need them most. The reasons officers have offered up for abandoning the baton and its ilk include:

  • The noise they make on location approaches
  • They come loose during foot pursuits and fights
  • Their use often requires more justification than other use-of-force options

That last concern is so strong in the minds of some officers that one officer contacted for this article says he prefers to carry an ASP "because it is much easier to forget," making it less likely that he "will actually remember to use it and find himself sitting in some federal prison for violating a suspect's civil rights."

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