Taking on the news media
I’d like to accomplish two things in this article: First, note a few things about Taser tactics, and second, tell you how to take on members of the news media when they do you wrong.
You may have heard it from me or someone else, but it bears constant repeating. When you're dealing with a violent person who is in a state of "excited delirium," you need to (1) get him or her subdued quickly (as with any other violent suspect); (2) get him or her immediate medical treatment (to possibly save the person's life and save you a lawsuit); and (3) know that the Taser “drive-stun” technique is generally not going to work on such a person (unless you are using the "three-point contact" technique, a combination of a dart and the drive-stun). See Taser Training Version 14, recently published, for more detail.
Getting a violent person subdued quickly is a basic tactical principle. Most of us are going to run out of gas during a major fight in less than a minute. Learn to use that “window of opportunity,” when the subject is on the ground, incapacitated by your Taser darts, to have the backup officers stabilize the subject and put on the bracelets.
Getting immediate medical treatment in many cases will stop the “downward spiral” of potentially deadly symptoms in your subject. There are paramedic and emergency room protocols being tested (and others in development) to inject excited-delirium patients with fluids that can stop the road to sudden death.
The drive-stun is a good defensive tool to help you "break contact" when you are tied up with a violent suspect. And, in well-trained hands, it can be a good offensive tool if the subject feels pain, or if the Taser user stuns the proper nerve groups at the right time — say, to cause a subject to release "turtled up" hands. But please understand that excited-delirium subjects tend not to feel pain. So drive-stun by itself will probably not have the desired effect.
I recommend that you drill those ideas into your head and the heads of the officers around you. Excited delirium has been leading some drug-abusers and schizophrenics to their deaths for many years, regardless of what police tool or tactic is deployed. But as professionals we need to do our best to save the life when we can.
Turning to media issues, I’ll tell you up front that news media error is not merely one of my pet peeves, it is the source of serious upset and offense to me. Way back when Lincoln was president, or thereabouts, I obtained two college degrees in journalism. Whenever a student wrote a “gross factual error” in a story, no matter how good the story was otherwise, it would get an automatic "F." I believe some of the journalists of today were not raised with quite the same standards.
When I see a serious media error about use-of-force issues, I fight back. And when I see good reporting, I acknowledge it. I suggest that you and your agency do the same. What follows are a handful of interactions with reporters and editors around the country.
This is my letter to the editor, published in a major Northeastern newspaper:
Your story about the reluctance of some police chiefs to deploy Tasers was insightful and balanced, unlike so much reporting I've seen around the country about Taser issues. However, I suggest that your next story report a detailed study of the use-of-force records of departments whose chiefs were quoted as saying Tasers were too dangerous. What are the types and costs of injuries to officers and suspects (and the related lawsuits and police disability pensions) from batons, kicks, punches, flashlights and other devices that are far more injurious than Tasers? Agencies that have fully implemented Taser programs find that those costs and injuries (and the number of police shootings) drop like a rock. Ask Phoenix, Miami, Denver, Cincinnati and thousands of other cities that have equipped all field officers with Tasers in the past few years.
My e-mail to a reporter at a newspaper in Ventura County, Calif.:
Thank you for a calm, objective, balanced story regarding the unfortunate custody death in your city. I do expert-witness work on this subject all over the country, and it is frustrating to frequently see in these cases what can only be described as "media hysterics,”with headlines in reputable newspapers such as "Police kill man with Taser.” Over and over, when the dust settles it is determined as expected: "It's the drugs, stupid.” Cocaine, PCP and methamphetamines, as well as schizophrenic persons who refuse to take their medications, occasionally result in sudden in-custody deaths, whether a Taser was used or not. There is nothing new about these phenomena in the past couple of generations, and the increasing number or emergency room visits for drug abuse means that the number of deaths will only get worse with time.
My e-mail to the editor of a radio station:
Your story about the Taser issue contained a very gross inaccuracy when it said "77.2 percent” of the time there is no serious injury. The fact is that the Wake Forest University study funded by the National Institute of Justice found no serious injuries in 99.7 percent of the cases. This is a serious error that should be corrected for your listeners. Quoting from the study, "99.7 percent of 962 subjects had no injuries or mild injuries only."
This is what I sent to the editor at CBS News in New York when the story broke last November about the United Nations suggesting that Tasers could be a form of torture:
Why don't you identify the "expert" who testified before the U.N. committee? Why don't you ask to see the "several reliable studies" that supposedly indicate that the Taser is dangerous? (You won't find them, but you will find dozens of medical studies that conclude that the Taser is a relatively safe use-of-force option). Finally, why don't you look into the general subject of sudden in-custody deaths? There is nothing new about these tragic deaths ... [T]he syndrome was identified and published almost 160 years ago. Hundreds of these deaths happen each year across the United States, and around the rest of the world, whether the Taser was used or not. And the problem will only get worse: All you need to do is look at the dramatic rise in the number of emergency room visits due to methamphetamine, cocaine, PCP and LSD intoxication. Finally, you might take a look at www.ipicd.com, regarding next week's second annual conference of medical examiners, emergency room doctors, and police trainers and use-of-force experts who will come together yet again to try to learn how some of these deaths might be prevented. And we will do so with FACTS, apparently not something the U.N. is interested in.
[AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am adding this note a few days after this article was posted online. Based on feedback from a reader of this column, I should have clarified that while there are a few medical studies out there that indicate that electronic control weapons could be dangerous, those studies mostly involved "swine models" (i.e., pigs), not human beings. Dr. Mark Kroll, who is head of the TASER Scientific and Medical Advisory Board and who holds more patents than anyone on heart pacemakers and related equipment advises me that "Pigs are easy to fibrillate and small pigs are extremely easy to fibrillate . . . human data always trumps animal data and we now have dozens of human studies.")
A couple of more notes about the U.N. story: Of course the reporter or editor didn't write back. And I later learned two interesting things about the United Nations and Tasers. First, the U.N. committee that wrote the "torture" report is the same committee that a year or two earlier pronounced the Taser a good tool to use. Better still, just a few weeks before the “torture” report came out, the U.N. itself advertised a request to purchase Tasers to outfit its own troops.
Here is my letter to the editor of The New York Times in response to one of its stories about the unfortunate, famous death of a man at Vancouver Airport:
What a shock it will be for Taser critics the world over when the Canadian investigators get around to revealing that the Polish immigrant who unfortunately died at the Vancouver Airport was wielding a full-sized stapler he picked up off a nearby desk, resulting in him getting Tasered. Has anyone bothered to actually look at the video, instead of just gossip about it? Would anyone choose to have their head smashed with a stapler, then have the audacity to claim that it was not a "combative" situation? Sure, it's a tragic case, but has anybody bothered to ask the media why they are not telling us about the stapler?
Finally, here is my letter to the editor at a paper in Virginia:
Tasers have been in police use for 30 years. Many lives have been saved, and countless serious injuries prevented. Tasers have gained prominence in the past seven or eight years because thousands of law enforcement agencies have adopted the newer, more effective versions. The excited-delirium problem is only going to grow — witness increasing emergency-room visits of drug abusers. In modern times, perhaps one-third of sudden in-custody deaths involve (but apparently are not caused by) use of Tasers. There aren't very good numbers out there about the entire sudden in-custody death picture, but it is obvious that the majority of them do not involve Tasers. There is, however, a list of common factors. Cocaine, meth, PCP and LSD, as well as schizophrenics who refuse to take their medications, are the common factors involved in these unfortunate deaths.
From the police point of view, the question is, "OK, if you don't want us to use Tasers, how exactly do you want us to take control of hyperviolent people?" The Taser has proven over time to cause fewer and less-severe injuries to officers and suspects than other police tools and tactics that are used to restrain people in excited delirium. Officers have on occasion been overpowered and murdered by these people. Use of force is never pretty. The public has grown up with sanitized or fictional violence on television and in the movies. Most people wouldn't know a real use of force incident if it hit them in the face, and most people have no rational basis to judge the propriety of a use-of-force incident. The U.S. Supreme Court clearly established in 1989, in Graham v. Connor, that police use of force tends to happen in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. The use of force is to be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, and not through 20/20 hindsight, and the amount of force is not capable of precise definition or mechanical application. Some agencies probably allowed Tasers to be used in ways that are inappropriate during their early adoption of the devices, but over time there is a growing consensus that verbal resistance alone is insufficient to justify Taser use in most cases, and that there must be by a level of physical or threatened physical resistance.
I hope the above letters provided some useful information to you as you attempt to help keep the news media straight.
By the way, here's a link to an update story about the famous "Don't tase me, bro!" fellow down in Florida. (Please note that although he and I share a name, we are not related.) "Andrew Meyer says the police were 'doing their job,' that he 'didn't intend to create a scene," and apologizes for his actions, on NBC's Today show. You can see the story here.
Also, to get a real education about the issues discussed in this article, consider attending the Americans for Effective Law Enforcement seminar, Legal, Psychological and Biomechanical Aspects of Officer-Involved Lethal and Less-Lethal Force, in San Francisco, March 24 through 26, 2008. (See www.aele.org for information.)
Also, the third annual seminar from the Institute for Prevention of In-Custody Death is scheduled for Las Vegas, Oct. 29 through 31, 2008. (See www.ipicd.com for information.)
Finally, to the officer who wrote me an e-mail question in late January, please send it again ... it got lost in cyberspace, and I owe you a response.
I’ll end this article with a salute and "thank you" for the life of LAPD SWAT Officer Randy Simmons, killed in action in February. I focus my articles on nonlethal force issues, but lethal-force encounters are never far from my mind. Randy was the "best of the best." Rest in peace.
To all of you, stay safe.
- Less Lethal