Over the past decade I and many others have blogged about individual cases where tasers have been abused by law enforcement agencies and individual law enforcement officials. From the Baron Pikes case where a young black man in custody was tased to death by a white police officer in a small town in Louisiana until he died to the increase in taser use in Chicago to the tasing of a a bedridden 86 year old grandmother in El Reno, Oklahoma, to the man tazed while having a diabetic seizure -- well you get the point. There's a vast number of such stories where tasers were used in situations for which they were not intended, but few comprehensive studies to support the claims by activists that taser abuse by law enforcement in America is widespread.
Fort that reason, I'm gratified to learn that the ACLU in Arizona took it upon themselves to fund a study to determine whether tasers are being systematically abused by Arizona law enforcement agencies. The results of that study should not surprise anyone. From the Executive Summary:
Many U.S. law enforcement and correctional agencies in the United States are using Tasers today. In Arizona, where TASER International has its corporate headquarters, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona asked large police departments and sheriff’s offices about the number and percentage of officers armed with a Taser; virtually every sworn officer is provided with one.
... However, all too often, Tasers are used “preemptively” against citizens that do not present an imminent safety threat, and even offensively as a pain compliance tool. What’s more, both TASER International training materials and agency policies anticipate that officers will use the weapon as a pain compliance tool.
This study confirms what many of us have been saying for years: that tasers are not merely used as an alternative to lethal force. Far from it. Indeed, their primary use in many cases in simply to coerce and intimidate individuals who pose no danger of imminent harm. The number of reports of taser misuse are not simply the result of "liberal bias." The abuse of tasers by law enforcement officials is not the result merely the result of a few bad apples or rogue cops. As the ACLU in Arizona has documented, the use of tasers to compel compliance and even torture people already in custody is not a bug, it's a feature. It's right there in the instructional materials provided by Taser International, and, at least in Arizona (though I'm quite sure this is the case in many other states as well) in the policies for using tasers adopted by many law enforcement agencies.
Here's some other relevant findings by the ACLU:
One of the most striking and more significant findings that came out of the ACLU of Arizona’s study is that, contrary to claims by Taser proponents, the frequency of deployment of lethal force has not declined with the advent of Tasers. [...]
[T]he ACLU’s survey of Arizona law enforcement agencies revealed that jurisdictions have adopted a patchwork of inconsistent policies regarding the Tasing of pregnant, young or elderly suspects, use of Tasers near a flammable substance, using Tasers on intoxicated people, and deploying the Taser multiple times on an individual. [...]
... Amnesty International’s recent 127-page report highlighting deaths associated with Taser use found that the county in the United States with the highest number of reported deaths was Arizona’s own Maricopa County.
As the ACLU makes clear, Taser International has always touted that tasers are a safe and effective alternative to lethal force. What Taser International fails to mention, however, is that tasers are most often used in situations where lethal force is not necessary or warranted. Let me quote the study again:
[T]he reality is that the majority of Taser shocks fired by officers do not take the place of gunshots, but rather other, less-lethal uses of force, such as baton strikes, chemical sprays, and the like. As the ACLU of Arizona’s law enforcement survey suggests, Tasers are routinely deployed in situations where lethal force would not be justified (i.e., in the absence of an immediate threat to officer or public safety.) [...]
In a 2004 special report, The Arizona Republic analyzed use-of-force reports from the Phoenix Police Department for 377 incidents involving a Taser and found that in nearly nine out of 10 cases, the subjects had not threatened officers with any weapon before a Taser was used.
In short, tasers have not lowered the rate at which deadly force is employed, despite Taser International's claims to the contrary. What they have done is to increase the use of an often deadly device to coerce people to comply with the police in situations where there is no danger of any threat to the officers or to the public. Tasers have been employed against diabetics, people with epilepsy, people with heart conditions, the elderly, children and even pregnant women. They have been used against people already handcuffed and in custody. For all too many law enforcement officials they provide a lazy way to deal with people with whom those officers come into contact.
And to be fair, this isn't a problem only in Arizona, The ACLU cites the following 2007 report by the Houston Chronicle as further evidence that Taser abuse and misuse is widespread in other communities across the United States:
In Houston, for example, a 2007 investigation revealed that in 95 percent of more than 1,000 incidents over two years, Tasers were “not used to defuse situations in which suspects wielded weapons and deadly force clearly would have been justified.” In approximately 35 percent of the cases examined by the Houston Chronicle, no crime was committed at all. And of those people charged with crimes, most were accused of misdemeanors or nonviolent offenses.
Taser abuse is rampant. The statistics in Arizona clearly document that this is the case in at least one state. It would be easy to bash Arizona, but we know from the studies that have been done in Houston and Chicago, and the other, numerous local news reports that incidents of taser abuse by the police occur all across the country. As Annie Lai, staff attorney for the Arizona ACLU, and a co-author of the report succinctly put it:
"In many cases, you find that officers go for the Taser as the first instinct, rather than being trained in situations to de-escalate a situation or using alternative, less-severe uses of force."
That's the problem in a nutshell. If you are a police officer, why try to resolve a situation peacefully, or use a less lethal method to deal with individuals who do not immediately comply with what you tell them to do, when you have your trusty taser right there on your hip, ready to pull out and shock non-violent offenders or simply innocent individuals who pose no threat to you or anyone else. It's a lot easier to use a taser rather than deal with the "hassle" of keeping the "peace" by using less violent means. Thus, we end up with police using tasers indiscriminately against almost anyone who looks at them cross-eyed, or (in the case of some sick and sadistic cops) as a means to torture individuals already safely in custody. In situations in which officers would never think to use a firearm, they are more than willing to use a taser.
A cop armed with a taser doesn't have to put up with any lip from anyone. Even a routine traffic stop can end with you being shocked multiple times if he or she is in a bad mood, or you fail to comply fast enough with the cop's demands. The taser encourages violence against ordinary citizens by the police, rather than discourages it. And in all too many cases it kills people. People like Baron Pikes whom I mentioned above.
Yet, where is the outcry in the national media about this epidemic of police abuse and excessive force? No where to be found. I guess we will just have to wait until some celebrity or pretty blonde young woman from a good family suffers death by taser before the national media will stand up and take notice.
In the meantime, the widespread use of tasers is eroding the public's trust in their law enforcement officials. I know that I always get anxious when I come across a police officer these days. He or she may be a dedicated and helpful public servant who plays by the rules, but how can you or I know for certain. We can't, and that's the real tragedy the ACLU has documented and wants to solve. Yet without coverage by the media of this problem leading to public outrage and a demand to deal with these issues, it's unlikely that individual states or Congress will do anything to stop what happens all to often to many, many people in the United States of America: torture, and far too often death, by taser wielding cops.