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4 tips to improve police use of TASERs

By taking all available time to assemble a number of officers in non-emergency cases, understanding why TASERs “fail,” reconsidering the use of the drive-stun, and knowing when immediate action is the best course of action, we can improve our use of nonlethal weapons

“The aggressive use of available nonlethal weapons early in standoff confrontations predictably results in fewer and less severe injuries to suspects and officers. The usual tactical alternative of prolonging the standoff frequently leads to the use of more injurious degrees of force, including deadly force.”

I wrote that nine years ago – and it’s still true! When you’re in a stand-off confrontation, nonlethal weapons can often help you end it. But let’s add in some important tactical lessons learned in recent years.

1. Using Time Available
There is an increasing recognition — in our profession, the courts and by the public we serve — that we need to slow down our initial response to incidents that are not immediately life-threatening. Too often, we rush in and die — or someone else does. It might be legal, but is there a better way?

When we review a case, a frequent question is, “Why rush in?” Often it’s better to wait, think, make a plan, get back-up, get a sergeant and then go in. There is safety in numbers, with various weapons options (lethal and nonlethal) in the hands of various officers.

Of course, sometimes in an emergency, someone is in serious danger. Immediate action must be taken to save the life. You will put yourself at risk by doing that.

But there are many occasions where you see the problem right in front of you, but it isn’t immediately life-threatening. You have time to drive on, make a U-turn while you’re requesting backup, wait and watch.

When the naked guy in excited delirium is breaking things and pounding on cars, but not injuring anyone except himself, do you really need to go hands-on by yourself with someone who is violently acting out with superhuman strength? Not really, in most cases.

The trick is to learn to distinguish between the true emergencies that require immediate action even if you are by yourself and the ones where there is time to get more resources there to help solve the problem.

2. Understanding TASER “Failure”
We’ve learned a lot in recent years about TASERs. When they work, they work great. When they don’t work — not good. But it’s important to understand what happened when they don’t work, and what we can do about it.

After reviewing more than a hundred TASER cases in my work as an expert witness all over the country, I am convinced that the biggest cause of so-called TASER “failures” is that the officer fired the darts from too close a distance. You’ve got to have a good dart-spread for the TASER to be effective.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to not realize how close you are to the suspect when your arm is outstretched and you launch the TASER darts. Step back! Make sure you are far enough away to get a good dart spread, but not so far as to miss with one or both darts.

3. Limiting Drive-Stun
The drive-stun function of the TASER is overused and rarely effective. It causes the suspect to act out violently from the pain, which officers may interpret as increased resistance, therefore more force is used. It leaves permanent scars. But most of all, it does not subdue the suspect the same way the darts do when the darts are effectively placed.

There are three scenarios where drive-stun function can be useful:

1. As a break-contact tactic when you are tied up.
2. To persuade a handcuffed, resisting suspect to get in the back of the car (show the spark, use appropriate warning words and touch him on the leg for a second or two with the drive-stun).
3. As a three-point contact used in conjunction with an unsuccessful dart deployment.

4. Acting Immediately When Needed
In standoff situations, nonlethal weapons should be used aggressively to bring the situation to a conclusion as quickly as possible, before the situation deteriorates into a confrontation requiring a greater level of force.

Use verbalization, try to gain compliance, but don’t talk them to death. If you are in a standoff and the suspect has something in her hand that could hurt or kill you, when verbalization fails, take them down with your TASER or other nonlethal weapon before they have a chance to attack. And be sure you have a lethal-force back-up in those cases.

These concepts need to be taught in training, and they need to be practiced in fast-breaking, adrenaline-inducing training scenarios.

Greg Meyer, a retired Captain from the Los Angeles Police Academy, served for 30 years, including eight years as a commanding officer. Greg is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center, a member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).