Getting it off my chest: TASER's new aiming guidelines

No doubt you have heard of TASER International’s recent “Training Bulletin No. 15 Medical Research Update and Revised Warnings,” which advises that they have “lowered the recommended point of aim from center of mass to lower-center of mass for front shots.”

A graphic included in the bulletin depicts the “preferred target area,” which is basically the whole body except for the chest, neck and head.

The bulletin is lengthy (18 pages, including the latest version of the product warnings), technical, and complicated. The bulletin was issued on October 12. In the days following its issuance, there has been quite a stir in the media and within law enforcement, from the street level to the chief’s office. There are lots of inaccurate rumors circulating out there.

The TASER company should have put a simple-to-understand bullet list of key issues on a coversheet for the 18-document. But they didn’t. Instead, everyone was forced to choose between wading through the details (a guaranteed headache), or just listen to the media (much easier to do, but full of beans... don’t act surprised!).

I’ll attempt to relate (in brief form) the essence of Training Bulletin No. 15 and a follow-up memo issued three days later, then provide some reaction from an attorney, another use-of-force expert, and myself.

Within Training Bulletin No. 15 you will find these words:

• The risk of an adverse cardiac event related to a TASER ECD discharge is deemed to be extremely low
• ...frontal applications of TASER ECDs have been found to be more effective when the probes are targeted at the lower torso (engaging the balancing muscles of the pelvic triangle)...
• We believe this recommendation will improve the effective use of TASER ECDs while also further increasing safety margins and enhancing the ability to defend such cases in post event legal proceedings
• When possible, avoiding chest shots with ECDs avoids the controversy about whether ECDs do or do not affect the human heart
• Back shots remain the preferred area when practical
• Once officers engage in capture procedures, it is important to minimize the duration of the physical struggle

A follow-up memo issued on October 15, days later by TASER’s training vice president, Rick Guilbault (a retired Sacramento Police Department sergeant for whom I have the highest regard) clarified why the preferred target area was changed (to improve effectiveness and provide better risk management), whether users could still deploy the TASER to the chest (yes!), and how the Training Bulletin may affect claims of excessive force (“TASER International is encouraging smart use of the TASER ECD with the targeting recommendations to promote best practices risk management and to avoid any excessive use of force claim or litigation against law enforcement.”

What Does it Mean?
Regarding the confusion and controversy, good friend and fellow Police1 columnist Steve Ijames told me, “It’s a tempest in a teapot.” He’s been teaching to aim TASERs at low center of mass for front shots for years, because it’s more effective to engage the pelvic triangle to get a good incapacitation.

Here’s an excerpt from a bulletin to clients of prominent police attorney Martin J. Mayer, of the Jones & Mayer law firm in Fullerton, Calif. (the firm is counsel to the police and sheriff leadership organizations in California):

As defense counsel for law enforcement agencies, we cannot ignore a concern which might adversely affect our clients. The reality is that lawsuits will be generated as a result of virtually any use of force by a peace officer. Our job is to show a judge and jury that the use of force was necessary and appropriate under the circumstances confronting the officer.

As such, the existence of well drafted policies on the use of force has always been of paramount importance. Along with the policies, training on the use of force is equally important. What we would urge is that policies do not prohibit chest shots. It’s one thing to recommend that the “preferred target zone” be used, but a prohibition creates serious problems if an errant shot lands outside that zone. We always urge avoiding “shall” and “shall not” language in policies, when possible.

The concern raised by this training bulletin, however, is that it will be used by plaintiff attorneys when claiming that the use of an ECD caused cardiac damage to the plaintiff. It would almost be malpractice for a plaintiff’s attorney to not hold up Training Bulletin 15.0 in front of the jury if, by chance, the ECD struck the suspect in the chest area and a cardiac episode occurred.

It is always our burden to prove that our officers were not malicious nor negligent when utilizing force of any kind. Accidents can always occur in situations which are volatile and where aggressive, violent behavior is directed at our officers. But all law enforcement agencies and officers must be constantly aware of the need to be able to justify and explain what they did in response to such aggression. The Taser Training Bulletin will just add to that burden but, “it is what it is.”

My own views were the subject of a Police1 article and a couple of related comments shortly after the training bulletin was published. They are summarized here:

• The idea of training officers to avoid the chest strikes me as a risk-management move to take away the heart-attack argument during litigation.

• Not enough is made out of the training that whenever practical, the TASER probes should be deployed to the subject’s back. Trainers should constantly and emphatically teach that deploying probes to the back is the highly preferable tactic. The large muscle groups of the back make it more likely that a full neuromuscular incapacitation will occur, and make it less likely that the subject will see it coming and have the opportunity to evade the probes, or reach up and pull them out if they are in the back. Clothing tends to fit tighter across the back, making it more likely that a good probe-connection will occur. None of this is new, and has nothing to do with avoiding the area of the heart. It has been the preferable procedure for more than 30 years that TASERs have been out there.

• It is important that law enforcement understand that there is legitimate public concern about our use of force tools and tactics. Unfortunately, John Q. Citizen generally only knows what they see on television, which thoroughly warps their expectations about police use of force. So law enforcement needs to do a much better job of educating politicians and (through the media) the public about what we do, how we do it, and why.

• TASERs are the latest, most prolific tool of law enforcement. A generation ago, there were outcries over neck-restraint holds. In the 1990’s, it was pepper spray. For the past decade or so, TASERs have become wide-spread in law enforcement, because they work.

• In city after city, proper use of TASERs has reduced deaths and injuries to suspects and officers, and reduced internal affairs complaints about use of force, and reduced lawsuit liability. Most of the arrest-related deaths that occur (about 300 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice) seem to involve excited delirium, whether or not a TASER is used.

• The public doesn’t yet get it that arrest-related deaths occur whether or not a TASER is used. That won’t change. And the public in general certainly doesn’t have the experience of having to try to subdue someone who is totally flipped out. Police, paramedics, emergency room staffs, and staffs in psychiatric hospitals know what that nightmare is all about. In my 33 years in law enforcement, looking at all the alternatives we’ve used, the TASERs are far and away the best tool we’ve got.

• People read all the time about sudden unexpected death involving athletes. In fact we just had another high school student collapse and die after football practice a few days ago in the Los Angeles area. It’s sad but true that some people have physiologic conditions that can be unexpectedly deadly. Individual cases are tragic, certainly, but you don’t get rid of a good tool or tactic that works well almost all the time, just because there is an occasional, tragic aberration.

• Officers are successfully using TASERs to reduce deaths and injuries, including officer-involved shootings. I don’t hear anyone arguing that we should go back to punching people, kicking people with combat boots or hitting them with metal pipes as normal reactions to suspect resistance.

• It is critically important for officers and agencies to examine their policies and training with respect to all use of force, including TASERs. Maybe this new TASER training bulletin will be the catalyst for widespread examination. I’ve seen much progress around the country for agencies adjusting their use of TASERs to appropriate situations as they learn from experience. Agency leaders and trainers need to look at how they are using their various tools with a risk-management mindset, and make policy and procedure decisions with their eyes open.

You may read Training Bulletin No. 15 and Rick Guilbault’s follow-up memo.

Finally, let me take this opportunity to remind you of a couple of TASER tactical issues I’ve been speaking and writing about for years: (1) Get a good probe spread! Take a few giant steps backwards if you need to disengage with the suspect. I see too many cases of “probes too close together” to get a good incapacitation; and (2) use probes, not drive-stun, whenever you can. Drive-stun is only for pain compliance (unless you’re attempting a three-point contact, aka: “angled drive-stun”), and many of your “clients” in the street are impervious to pain! Keep these two tactics in mind, and train for them. You’ll have better outcomes in your incidents.

Until next time, stay safe!

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