Some special interest groups and at least one Texas legislator believe that TASERs should be used only when deadly force is justified. This is a very dangerous philosophy. It not only shows ignorance regarding police use of force, it essentially negates the TASER's usefulness as a means of reducing officer and suspect injuries.
Even some of the strongest critics of police use of force would agree that limiting TASER use to deadly force situations is a bad idea. Nobody would mistake the American Civil Liberties Union for a pro-police organization, but the ACLU says that TASERs are not an appropriate response when facing a bad guy with a gun. "There is significant pressure in some segments of the community to put electronic control device use at or just below lethal force. [This is] naive [and] it gives officers a dangerous choice and will lead to more deaths," Scott Greenwood, general counsel to the National Board of the ACLU, said at a recent TASER symposium.
Confusion in the Ranks
Even the ACLU realizes that TASERs are not a substitute for guns. But some officers have become confused as to when to use a TASER and when to use their duty weapons. The old saying "Never bring a knife to a gunfight" applies just as well for a TASER. A TASER is a great less-lethal weapon, but it is not a replacement for a gun.
Most cops know this. So where does the confusion come from?
Perhaps it comes from the fact that the introduction of TASERs into police operations in a given community tends to result in a reduction in officer-involved shootings. When the Miami-Dade Police Department equipped its police officers with TASERs, there were no officer-involved shootings for 12 months. The same thing happened in Seattle. That hadn't happened in either city in a decade.
Neither of these agencies trained its officers to use TASERs when facing threats of death or serious bodily injury. So the reduction in officer-involved shootings is likely the result of officers using their TASERs to resolve dangerous situations quickly and decisively before they could escalate to the level of requiring deadly force. This includes apprehending subjects who are later found to be armed with a firearm. It also frequently includes situations involving suspects armed with edged weapons or dangerous impact weapons such as hammers and pipes.
Does this mean a threat from a knife or a hammer should be responded to by the police with a TASER? Of course not. But under certain circumstances, a TASER might be a reasonable and appropriate response.
But let's be clear on one thing: Officers should not expose themselves to any greater risk when armed with a TASER than they would if they had no TASER. These weapons were created to reduce officer deaths and injuries, not to create circumstances that put officers at greater risk.
Still, TASERs can be and have been used to prevent unnecessary deaths. For example, by utilizing appropriate physical cover as well as cover from an officer prepared to immediately deliver deadly force, officers have been able to safely approach and incapacitate subjects armed with lethal weapons.
Consider that many veteran officers have experienced lengthy standoffs with subjects who are armed with anything from knives to guns to pipes. Sometimes they happen in the open with officers in very close proximity (often too close) to the subject but not close enough to effectively use a baton or pepper spray. The subject is armed and not cooperative, but he is not threatening the officers, yet. In circumstances like these, incapacitating the subject early in the encounter with a TASER from say 20 to 30 feet away could end the situation before it escalates any further. But if the subject suddenly charges the officers, they will have no choice but to use deadly force.
Part of the reason why some cops have come to believe that a TASER can be a suitable response to a deadly threat is that in their zeal to promote TASER use by their officers some police administrators have led the public to believe a TASER can replace a gun. Many chiefs and sheriffs have been quoted saying that being hit by a TASER is better than being hit by a bullet.
This is indisputably true, but it's also misleading. It gives the public the perception that officers will be able to routinely resolve deadly force situations with a TASER. A more appropriate statement might be, "Getting hit by a TASER is safer than being struck by a baton and more effective than a snoot full of OC."
Misleading the public is a political problem. Giving officers the impression that a TASER can replace a handgun is a tactical problem, and one that can lead to black mourning tape on your agency's badges.
I occasionally receive e-mails from officers describing how they were able to use their TASERs to disarm subjects who were attacking them with edged weapons or even firearms. They are grateful that no one was hurt and that they didn't have to take a life.
While I am happy that everything ended well for them, I fear they are committing one of the cardinal sins of police work: confusing good luck with good tactics. I have followed up with these officers and expressed my concerns to them. More importantly, I have contacted the department trainers to discuss the issue and make sure their officers realize the limitations of these devices and don't think of it as a replacement for a firearm. Because TASERs are typically very effective when properly applied to a subject, these situations often end with a successful apprehension and no injuries. However, one missed probe or a clothing disconnect can result in tragedy.
Some have voiced concern that some of the actual use videos contained in the TASER International instructor training course promote poor tactics and the use of TASERs in deadly force situations. The company clearly informs instructors and students that just by showing the video, it is not supporting the tactics depicted. In fact, some of the videos are examples of what not to do and of what can go wrong in the field.
In my classes, these videos have initiated some spirited debates as to whether deadly force would have been a more appropriate force option. This is, in fact, the purpose behind these videos, to promote discussions and get instructors thinking about appropriate tactics and force options.
Policies and Tactics
Another reason that many officers are confused about when to use a TASER and when not to use a TASER is that there is no consensus on this issue among chiefs and sheriffs.
Use-of-force policies and tactics vary from agency to agency. What is appropriate use of force within a sheriff's department might be prohibited in a police department within the same county.
The key concern is that officers know the policy and know when to use their TASERs. I have seen policies that very clearly state that a TASER shall not be used when deadly force is justified or when dealing with anyone armed with a firearm.
While as a general rule this might not be a bad idea, policy makers should consider that just because deadly force is justified does not always make it the best option. We also know that officers are not automatically justified in using deadly force simply because someone is armed with a firearm. Officers should be able to evaluate each situation on its own merits and should have all their tools at their disposal.
Rick Guilbault is a retired sergeant from the Sacramento Police Department with 24 years of service. Assignments included FTO, SWAT operator & SWAT team leader (full time), patrol sergeant and Academy Commander. He is currently the Vice President of Training for TASER International. He can be reached at Sarge@TASER.com.
Situational TASER Training
Training is the key to ensuring that officers who carry TASERs are aware of when use of the TASER is appropriate and when other weapons become necessary.
Stress-induced scenario training that gives officers a number of force options is best. This training can be conducted on a video simulator or live.
When doing live training with role players, make sure that your officers have safe versions of the weapons options that they have in the field, including a training replica gun, inert OC, a foam baton, and a TASER with a non-conductive cartridge. In this training, officers should have no idea which weapon will be required until the situation presents itself.
Make sure that your students don't use a TASER when talking to a subject would be more appropriate, and also that the students don't try taking TASERs to a gunfight.
You can further enhance the training by changing the level of resistance and threat presented to the officer during the scenario. Require your students to constantly evaluate the situation and transition to various appropriate force options as the conditions change. This type of training is not easy, but if you don't do it, some violent offender on the street will. And lessons learned in training are much less costly than lessons learned in the field.