Why history makes the case for less lethal

Earlier this year, six stories involving police use of electronic control devices were published in The Los Angeles Times in less than two weeks. A man in Victorville, CA, attacked his family with a box cutter, and then sheriff’s deputies subdued him with beanbag shotgun rounds and a TASER. A man in Lancaster, CA, hid a gun in his back brace, pulled it, shot it, then put it down, but he wouldn’t move away from it. He, too, was subdued by less lethal means.

The rest of the stories involved a 12-year-old autistic boy who was taken down by a TASER after his violent outburst at a school in Hawthorne, where he is alleged to have assaulted several people including knocking a security guard to the ground, then heading for a group of children.

When police use any type of force on a child, emotional buttons are pushed, and rancorous public debate over the propriety of the police action is inevitable. In our democracy, police are accountable to the public, as we should be. But the debate should be informed by facts, not just emotion. There is much for the public and for law enforcement to consider regarding police use of force in general and less lethal devices like beanbags and TASERs in particular.

In 1977, at least two police officers in California were murdered (and many more received crippling injuries) while attempting to subdue naked, extremely violent people who were under the influence of the drug PCP. On January 3, 1979, a woman named Eulia Love was shot to death by two Los Angeles Police Department officers when she stood them off with a butcher knife, then attacked them. (The Times and other media continue to mischaracterize the Love tragedy as “shot during a dispute over an unpaid gas bill,” ignoring the fact that the police were there because she had attacked a gas company employee with a shovel.)

Those and similar incidents led the LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to intensify the search for nonlethal alternatives that could subdue a violent person without death or serious injury to the person or the officer. TASERs and various chemical irritant sprays were adopted by the LAPD and LASD and many law enforcement agencies in order to reduce injuries when arresting resisting suspects, and possibly avert fatal shootings by giving officers tools to use from a distance and also early enough to prevent an incident from degenerating into a shooting.

After conducting nonlethal weapons research for LAPD in 1979-80, I personally used or was present during the use of TASERs several times on the street to subdue violent suspects, including two who were threatening suicide by butcher knife. Over the years, various studies in cities across the country have shown that the use of nonlethal weapons lead to fewer and less severe injuries to officers and violent suspects, fewer police shootings of people armed with knives and the like, fewer lawsuits that seek to transfer your tax dollars to people who were resisting arrest (or their survivors), fewer disability pensions, lower medical costs for officer injuries, and — one hopes — an improved public image for the law enforcement agency that is seen as trying to do the right thing.

But, there are challenges.

As useful and effective as they are most of the time, nonlethal weapons don’t always work because of device limitations or because officers in the heat of battle frequently do not deploy them according to training. (For TASERs in particular, this often means not stepping back far enough to achieve a good dart spread; or using a drive-stun when the probe-mode is preferred because it is so much more effective.)

In 2007, a total of 45 people were fatally shot by police in the United States and Canada after police first attempted to subdue the person with a TASER. And most experienced officers can tell you stories of violent people who were not affected by the sprays, which seem to work pretty well on nearby officers.

In one of the most famous police use of force incidents, on March 3, 1991, Rodney King was twice taken to the ground by an older model, less effective TASER, but twice managed to get up, with bad results to King (who was beaten and kicked), the officers (two of whom went to federal prison), and the public at large (when dozens died during the 1992 Los Angeles riot).

The police profession, like the rest of the world, is stuck with hiring human beings. My experience with more than 30 years of law enforcement is that these are generally very good human beings, but in the heat of the moment some officers in some places around the country use nonlethal weapons like the TASER when they shouldn’t. The policies and training in some agencies are not all they should be, so although they usually get it right, we occasionally see officers using force in arguably wrong situations. As law enforcement professionals we need to critically examine (and develop better policies for) cases where force is used for just “compliance” rather than “control” when dealing with resisting people.

There are 18,000 police agencies in the United States, which means that there are 18,000 policies on nonlethal weapons out there. As law enforcement evolves as a profession, the policies and training are getting better, but it’s not as quick and easy a process as flipping on a light switch. For almost 30 years, the LAPD and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have required that officers and deputies can use TASERs only when there is significant active resistance or active aggression (assaults) by the suspect. Agency policy-makers would do well to require that TASERs are not used for passive resistance or verbal resistance that is not accompanied by a significant physical threat, pre-assault indicators, and similar considerations.

Use of force is never very pretty, and in this generation the public is seeing more of it because of the proliferation of cell-phone videos, security surveillance videos, YouTube, and the playing of the dramatic footage over and over again on television. Having little basis for judging police action other than being conditioned for years by fictional violence on television or at the movies, people tend to fall back on emotions rather than facts when exposed to a violent video.

The ultimate question about any police use of force is whether the force was “objectively reasonable” given the facts and circumstances of the incident. For 20 years, the United States Supreme Court has required that judges and juries make “allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving — about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Further, the test of reasonableness “is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application” and “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

We must count on police administrators to create good policy and training programs, and count on police officers to do their difficult job well, as “objectively reasonable” as they can. When agencies fail, or when individual officers fail, they are held accountable by lawsuits, internal affairs actions, and occasionally criminal prosecution. These processes, whether fair or unfair—and there are plenty of both--cause the police profession to adapt to changing professional and pubic expectations. But this usually comes at the cost of individual officers being treated as sacrificial lambs.

Even though shootings have been reduced, and deaths and injuries have been reduced, the subject is full of myths and misinformation about the relative safety of the nonlethal devices in the hands of officers in more than 13,000 agencies in the United States.

According to the National Institute of Justice, sudden deaths (other than shootings) during police restraint occur an estimated 300 times per year in the United States when someone is acting out violently, regardless of what tools or tactic the police use, and sometimes when the police are not even present. Most of these tragic deaths involve people who are totally flipped out on cocaine, methamphetamines, PCP, or LSD, or the effects of schizophrenia or bipolar disease when they stop taking prescribed medication.

But there is a long history of blaming the police, rather than the violent person, for these deaths. Some dedicated doctors in the United States and Canada are researching how some of these deaths might be prevented, but the solutions have been elusive thus far. Police need to subdue delirious people, and also get prompt emergency medical attention. In fact, the message for police dealing with persons exhibiting symptoms of excited delirium is “get the paramedics on the way, right away, even before subduing the subject if you have time to use your radio first.”

Last December, Amnesty International issued another of its occasional reports critical of electronic stun devices. But when one does the math using Amnesty’s own numbers, stun guns were implicated by medical examiners or coroners in just two percent of all sudden in-custody death cases in the United States over a seven-year period. So why pick on the device which has saved so many lives and prevented injuries? Doesn’t Amnesty care about the other 98 percent of such deaths? And on what basis do they blame the police, when doctors have been researching these types of deaths for more than 150 years and still don’t have the prevention answer?

Despite increasing numbers of independent research studies that show that TASERs are safe alternatives compared to other types of force, Amnesty and many chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union argue that TASERs should only be used in the place of a police handgun. But this would mean that officers in today’s nonlethal force situations would go back to the bad old days of beating people with sticks and flashlights, kicking them, punching them, and doing all those things that cause so much trauma (not to mention riots).

ACLU National Board member Scott T. Greenwood has referred to the proposed limitation on police use of ECDs to deadly force situations only as “ludicrous” and “dangerously naïve.” So the debate about the appropriate use of nonlethal weapons will continue.

How will the Hawthorne case involving the autistic 12-year-old be judged? It’s too early to tell. In 20 years of expert witness work on police use of force issues, much of which has involved TASERs, I’ve learned to not form opinions before reviewing all the evidence.

Hypothetically, if the newspaper stories are accurate — that the five-foot, seven-inch, 130-150 pound boy actually did “threaten to kill school staff members and continued assaulting the guard, who tried to protect other staffers” (The Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2009) — what choice of tools or tactics would you choose? Pepper spray (with 45-60 minutes of agony)? Nightsticks and karate kicks (with potential broken bones)? Or the TASER, which induces five seconds of pain and incapacitation, which 99.7 percent of the time results in “no serious injuries” (according to a recently published NIJ-funded study by Dr. William Bozeman at Wake Forest University)?

The many news stories that I see daily about incidents involving nonlethal weapons — particularly TASER — all around the world clearly show that these devices are overwhelmingly being used in appropriate situations to save lives and prevent injuries.

Police officers do the best they can with what they’ve got to work with. When officers and agencies make mistakes, intentional or not, they are held accountable by the courts and internal affairs systems. The tendency in some quarters to automatically blame the police for doing their jobs when violent people must be subdued, does not serve anyone well.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2022 Police1. All rights reserved.