Tasers: The harmless weapon that keeps on killing

Tasers, as we know them today, are the brainchild of Jack Cover and Rick Smith.

Cover, a physicist from California, invented the Tasers in early 1970, drawing inspiration for its name from a science fiction novel he read as a child. Whereas the hero in the story used his electric rifle to hunt animals; Tasers are intended for use by police in situations that necessitate protection but not lethal force.

In 1994 Rick Smith, the “Steve Jobs of law enforcement” began selling the Air Taser. Thanks to a financial handout from Smith’s father, the duo were able to keep their company above water while its competitor, Tasertron, held a patent that prevented Smith from selling the electric stun guns to the police.

When that patent expired in 1998, Smith started selling his weapons to the police. The company has had impressive financial success ever since, in part due to the monopoly that the company (now Axon Enterprise) has on the U.S. market, having bought out Tasertron.

Tasers work by shooting two darts attached to electrified wires. In a perfect scenario, these darts separate and penetrate the skin at the correct angle from the correct distance, creating an electrified circuit that causes the person’s muscles to lock in a cramp-like state that lasts for a few seconds. In a perfect scenario, this is enough time for an officer to disarm and restrain the person without causing significant injury. 

In the States, Tasers are given to most patrol officers and are one of the most popular nonlethal weapons. Across the Atlantic, Tasers have been gaining UK popularity since their introduction in 2004. In September 2019, the Home Office announced that forces in England and Wales will receive £10 million in additional funding to purchase over 10,000.

And popularity for Tasers does not seem to be subsiding in UK law enforcement: in February this year, a police officer in Northamptonshire used a Taser to help a fellow officer who was being strangled by a suspect. This led to the Police Chief Constable justifying the use of tasers if the situation requires it.. Further, there does seem to be public support: a current petition demanding all police officers in the UK to be issued with Tasers have almost 120,000 signatures.

However, there are issues surrounding the effectiveness of Tasers. Axon Enterprise, throughout the years, have claimed Tasers to be 86, 94, 97 and even 99 or 100 percent effective. But a key thing to note here is what criteria is used to determine a Taser’s effectiveness. 

And this varies depending on who you ask. Axon have declared effective use of a Taser to be when police threaten a suspect with a Taser and the suspect is then subdued. 

This is particularly interesting when we look out how Tasers are used, and who they are used on. A report by The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) has recommended that forces in the UK are given clearer guidance about when they can use Tasers to control suspects, following an examination of 108 cases. 

In these cases, 22% of subjects were black and 71% white, highlighting a disproportionate use of Tasers on black people. The report also found that black people were less likely than white people to be Tasered, despite being more likely to face a police Taser. 

This second finding has large implications. As was stated in 2004, “Police officers are legally and morally required to use the lowest level of force necessary to control a situation and de-escalate at the earliest opportunity”. In other words, Tasers should only be used when there is a threat to life, not to enforce compliance.  

The point here is that black people are less likely to be Tasered, but more likely to be threatened with a Taser. What we find ourselves left with is the possibility that this is because police are using Tasers incorrectly to force coercion in situations that may not have deescalated that far. This is further suggested in the report that saw 26 cases passed onto the IOPC for poor practice or illegal use, and 25 officers referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. 

A report also found that black people were more likely to be Tasered for longer than their white counterparts. Again, this begs the question of why they are being used in this way, and if the Home Office should roll out Tasers. Alongside side this, there is not a clear correlation between Taser usage and reduced deaths in or following police custody:

Between 2004/05, when Tasers were introduced, and 2008/09, there was a yearly reduction in the number of deaths in or following police custody. However, since then the numbers have slightly risen and declined in no clear pattern, or at least none where a case can be made that Tasers have reduced the death rate in this way. What is clear is that with more tasers has come more threats.

Following this is the misuse of Tasers by police. In the 108 cases examined, 26 were passed onto the IOPC for potential practice or illegal use, in 15 there was a case for gross misconduct, and 25 officers were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Cases of misuse are also seen all too frequently in America: in July 2013, a Chicago police officer tased a pregnant woman three times, causing her miscarriage, after she pretended to use her phone to video police towing her van. Lots of incidents also happen with those suffering from mental health problems, and in 2017 two police officers in Texas tased a suicidal man who had doused himself in gasoline, setting him alight.

If Tasers are used correctly, they do seem to hold some ability to protect police and public. But police must remember they are not a go-to weapon and must only be used in clear situations of imminent danger. Otherwise, Tasers will hold a strong role in the well-established criticisms of police brutality.

Header Image Credit: “TASER X26 and Glock Magazine” by Tony Webster