This paper was written by me in 2009 for an ethics in criminal justice course. It analyses the use of tasers from different ethical standpoints such as utilitarian, deontological, and peacemaking. Enjoy!
Ethical Standpoints of Police Taser Use
When individuals are asked what comes to mind when the word “police” is spoken, invariably some will mention the slogan: “to protect and serve.” A significant responsibility of police officers is the protection of human life when possible.
Of course during the execution of a police officers’ duty, it can be expected situations may arise requiring an officer to take a life in order either to save another, or when there is no available means of restraining an individual suspect. In order to widen options available to deal with these types of situations, designers have invented various means to incapacitate suspects.
The first deployment of a less than lethal device by police was CN gas, a type of tear gas developed during the First World War (Ready & White, 2008). CN gas was later replaced by the more effective CS gas (Ready & White, 2008). Eventually, rubber and plastic bullets were made available; however, these held great potential to injure suspects who were shot in the head, neck, or kidneys (Ready & White, 2008).
Today there are many different types of less than lethal options ranging from twelve gauge bean bag rounds, rubber batons, oleoresin capsicum sprays, pellets containing chemical agents, to conductive energy devices (CED). While some types of devices, such as oleoresin capsicum sprays, have been widely accepted without a great deal of controversy, the usage of conductive energy devices has been hotly debated.
While some groups herald the lifesaving capabilities of conductive energy devices, other groups, such as Amnesty International, are calling for moratoriums on the use of such equipment (Truscott, 2008). The primary devices being questioned are the M26 and X26 models from Taser International (Truscott, 2008).
History of Tasers
During the late 1960’s, a researcher for NASA by the name of Jack Cover began work on a new method of delivering an electric pulse that would incapacitate would-be assailants (Langton, 2007). In 1974 he marketed the device as the Thomas A Swift electric rifle (taser), naming it after a science fiction hero (Truscott, 2008).
The first variation of the taser utilized gun powder propellant and was thus considered a firearm (Langton, 2007). Attaining some usage by police departments, it was originally sold by Taser Systems, and later by Tasertron (Riordan, 2003).
It wasn’t until Rick and Tim Smith began work collaboratively with Jack Cover that the modern taser emerged (Langton, 2007). The first tasers to use compressed air propellants became available from Taser International in the mid 90’s; however, it wasn’t until the M26 and X26 models were marketed did widespread adoption of the taser in police departments occur (Langton, 2007).
Taser International continues to research and develop new methods of deploying conductive energy devices (http://www.taser.com). The recently released XREP round is designed to be deployed from an ordinary 12 gauge pump action shotgun; the upcoming X3 unique feature is its’ ability for engagement of up to three suspects simultaneously (http://www.taser.com). Today the M26 and X26 models have been deployed in over 12,000 police departments (Truscott, 2008), with the number of units sold to police departments climbing to over 301,000 (Truscott, 2008).
With increased implementation of the taser, concurrently a series of deaths has been observed following taser usage on suspects (Ready & White, 2008). While tasers have not been directly implicated in these deaths, as lethal levels of drugs in suspect’s systems and others preexisting conditions were attributing factors, it has raised the issue of whether or not tasers should receive such widespread adoption (Truscott, 2008).
How Tasers Work
A taser works much like any conductive energy device, a large amount of energy is dumped into a suspect’s body which disrupts his or her nervous system’s ability to control muscles (http://www.taser.com). In order to effectively incapacitate an individual, the energy used is high voltage but low amperage in nature (http://www.taser.com). The energy is pulsed intending to mimic the human nervous systems’ own signals (http://www.taser.com).
In order to achieve ranged incapacitation, a cartridge system housing two barbs attached to the cartridge via insulated wires is used along with a nitrogen propellant capsule (Langton, 2007). The barbs are shot out at a speed of eighty five meters per second, with a distance range of ten meters (Truscott, 2008)).
The barbs are intended to hook into clothing in order to maintain skin contact. Once contact is made, the M26 or X26 on board computer begins delivering electrical pulses for five seconds (https://www.taser.com). Ideally the suspect is left exhausted from the exertion of muscles brought on by their confused nervous system; however, in some cases follow up charges are required to maintain control over a suspect (Ready & White, 2008).
Another function the M26 and X26 taser models have is hand to hand mode which is active when the unit is absent a cartridge (http://www.taser.com). This mode, also referred to as direct stun, does not have the ability of incapacitating the nervous system (http://www.taser.com). It is, however, capable of inflicting pain in the subject which may result in compliance (http://www.taser.com).
Depending upon the individual review of a given department, a single charge from an X26 effectively incapacitates a suspect in 80% to 95% of reported incidents (Ready & White, 2008). Consequently, the X26 single charge surpasses effectiveness percentages reported for oleoresin capsicum (Ready & White, 2008). Unlike oleoresin capsicum, which can adversely affect the officers who deploy it (particularly in windy conditions or indoors), tasers do not adversely affect the environment, nor do they leave particulate on the suspect or surroundings (http://www.taser.com).
In a review of statistics of taser deployment by the New York Police Department (NYPD), findings conclude suspects were subdued eighty percent of the time, with average time for a charge to incapacitate being just over eight seconds (Ready & White, 2008). Furthermore, 78.7% of officers expressed performance satisfaction of the taser during the reported incident (Ready & White, 2008).
While New York is a special case because only their emergency services unit deploys tasers as a part of their tactical team arsenal, other departments such as Austin and Cincinnati have reported a decreased rate of injury to both suspects and officers as a result of widespread taser adoption (Ready & White, 2008).
Departmental policy on deployment circumstances vary greatly between agencies. For example, the New York Police Department only issues tasers to specialized and highly trained incident response teams; contrasting with another department where every line officer is issued one (Ready & White, 2008). Similarly, rules of engagement may be very strict, placing the use of tasers on a force continuum one stage below firearms and require active threat of harm to officers or others, while another department may allow for taser deployment in situations of passive suspect resistance (Ready & White).
Amnesty International (2008) claims drive stun mode, which has been used in several high profile taser incidents such as Toronto and UCLA, is nothing more than a form of excruciating torture and should be banned outright. They also point out that the taser, as it leaves little visible evidence after use, has a high potential for abuse (Amnesty International, 2008).
During a taser discharge, suspects have a high likelihood of falling to the ground. Several medical studies have shown that most injuries sustained following taser deployment are the result of falling and striking the ground or another object (Helmer et al., 2008). Typically injuries are scrapes, scratches, or bruises; however, concussion type injuries following strikes of the head against the ground or other objects are not uncommon (Helmer et al., 2008).
The taser is particularly dangerous if the barbs make contact with the head. Several case studies have revealed barbs easily penetrate the globe of the eye (Helmer et al., 2008). Even if they do not penetrate the eye itself but only the eyelid, cataract develop can occur from the electrical exposure (Helmer et al., 2008).
Depending upon range to the suspect, it is feasible for barbs to puncture the cranium requiring advanced medical attention for removal (Helmer et al., 2008). In some cases of barbs and skull contact, seizures have followed after taser charge to the suspect has ceased (Bui et al., 2009).
At least one case has been reported in which a pregnant woman was incapacitated using a taser, resulting in a partial abortion. In this case, one barb landed just above her abdomen, and her partial abortion occurred a few days later. Not able to attest for certain the taser caused the incident, circumstantial evidence and the doctor’s autopsy show the taser to be a probable factor (Marinaro et al., 2007).
A disturbing trend on the increase is the use of taser force against school children (Amnesty International, 2008). School resource officers have reportedly used tasers on truant children trying to skip class, sometimes as young as eight years old (Ready & White, 2008).
In contrast, tasers usage with the geriatric population is increasing as well. It is believed in some scenarios, officers deploy tasers more out of convenience and for rapid resolve rather than using the less invasive method.
Statistically, taser use against the mentally ill has been disproportionately high. In studies such as the NYPD case study, it was shown that only 25 percent of suspects were arrested or already held in police custody in the course of the incident (Ready & White, 2008). Another finding of Ready and White (2008) was that of all taser deployments in New York, 75 percent were not arrested and most were sent for commitment to a psychological facility.
Finally, the cause of death in suspects that have been charged with a taser then die while in police custody is still under debate. While many proponents of tasers claim deaths resulted from outside contributing factors such as lethal levels of drugs (i.e. PCP) or pre-existing medical conditions (i.e. advanced heart disease), opponents point out this does not exonerate the taser as a determinate to the suspect’s death (Truscott, 2008). Taser opponnents hold that the use of a taser increases stress levels and can cause death (Truscott, 2008).
The question of whether or not a condition of stress or excitement to the degree in which it kills an individual has come under debate. While the DSM-IV does not list excited delirium which has been blamed for some of the taser related deaths, it does mention active delirium and on rare occasions can result in death (Truscott, 2008).
In pursuit of correlating the levels of stress with methodology of suspect apprehension, a recent studies was conducted with healthy volunteers. After running to a designated level of exertion, the participants were asked to engage in one of the following: wrestle a police officer; be sprayed with oleoresin capsicum; or be stunned by a taser. Results revealed being stunned by a taser released a very low amount of stress hormones; in contrast, highest levels of stress hormones occurred when wrestling a police officer (Force Science News, 2009). As this study was conducted with healthy individuals in a controlled environment, unfortunately, police officers in the field will encounter suspects with diversity of physical and mental factors unknown at time of engagement. So while these studies show the taser to be completely safe when used upon a healthy individual, the health level and fitness of individuals the taser is actually deployed, and outcomes, can vary greatly (Ready & White, 2008).
Definition of Taser Use Ethical Dilemmas
Given that tasers may result in injury or death, the first question we must ask is, “Do police hold the right to deploy tasers?” The second question we must ask is, “In what types of situations should a taser be deployed?” To answer these questions we must view the dilemma through different ethical lenses: utilitarian, deontological, and peace making.
Utilitarianism posits what is ethical is what creates the most good for the most people (Brasswell et al., 2008). For example, a law that helps a hundred but harms one would be considered ethical as it is for the common good.
When applied to the issue of taser deployment, utilitarianism asks, “Will more good result from the deployment of tasers than harm?” From a macro level perspective of taser deployment we observe taser deployment results in fewer injuries to police officers, many lives saved, and a low risk of death or permanent injury to the suspect.
Thus, from a macro level approach, the deployment of tasers would appear justified; however, we must also apply utilitarian perspective to individual cases. While it may be ethical from a utilitarian perspective to deploy a taser on violent suspects, it may not be considered ethical to deploy a taser on non violent offenders such as truants or individuals who are only passively resisting commands from an officer.
Deontology holds to the concept that being ethical coincides with upholding one’s duty (Brasswell, et al., 2008). In order to ascertain the ethicality of taser deployment, we must first inquire as to duties of police in general, and of individual officers.
Overall, the duty of police is to enforce laws of their given municipality, county, state, and the United States of America; they are also charged to protect and serve the public. While at first glance it would appear deontology would allow the ethical deployment of tasers as they would aid the police in carrying out their duty to enforce the law. However, conflict emerges when police function in a dual capacity with obligation to protect suspects while simultaneously protecting the public.
Thus, the question of whether or not deployment of tasers is justified from a deontological perspective quite possibly cannot be answered. Theoretically, police hold conflicting duties making the deployment of a device that may both protect and potentially harm, an engaging quandary.
The peacemaking perspective of ethics holds the premise ethical behavior requires the elements of caring, connectedness, and mindfulness (Brasswell et al., 2008). When applied to the deployment of tasers, we must ask if police are: demonstrating genuine concern for suspects and the public; whether or not the goal of deployment is to restore relationship between police, suspect, and community; and whether or not everyone’s needs are met through taser deployment.
The obvious danger is, should a suspect be killed or permanently injured, reconciliation with other parties involved may be impossible. However, in situations where the only other alternative to taser deployment is use of devices more inclined to kill or permanently injure the suspect, a taser is an implement allowing later opportunity for restoration of relationships between suspect, police, and community.
Despite noted drawbacks, tasers still present a valuable tool for law enforcement. It appears plausible to build an ethical framework for the individual deployment of tasers based on three primary premises.
First, tasers should only be deployed when other alternatives short of deadly force have been exhausted, or would not be effective in resolving the situation. As with any situation, variable factors have to remain in the decision making process of what course of action is in the best interest of all parties involved, realizing there are often times multiples of people in need of protection during engagement. In most instances, negotiation with suspects is still preferable methodology, and is acceptable from all ethical standpoints. Alternative options such as aikido control techniques and oleoresin capsicum should not be dismissed as risk to suspect remains low.
Second, tasers should almost exclusively be limited to deployment in situations where suspects pose imminent risk to self or others. Therefore, usage of tasers against non violent truants fleeing school resource officers would be ethically inerrant; however, deployment against an individual threatening to stab oneself is ethically acceptable as he poses imminent risk to himself.
Lastly, because it is inevitable taser use will occur, training needs to be a primary objective to insure taser implementation is performed correctly. By training officers on probe attachment, environmental cautions such as ground surfaces, and obvious medical/health concerns such as pregnancy, age, and apparent drug intoxication, optimal outcomes can result with taser usage.
Based on findings and conclusions, a proposed brief ethical guideline outlining when an officer should deploy could be conjectured. An officer should deploy a taser if: a.) Suspect poses high risk of death or permanent injury to himself, officer, bystanders, or hostages; b.) No other option exists short of intentional deadly force to bring suspect into compliance; c.) High probability exists more good will be accomplished than harm by deploying a taser; d.) Use of taser has higher probability of restoring relationship between suspect, officer, and community; and e.) Officer is assured, due to high standards of training, of placing probes into suspect’s center of mass.
Appearing unlikely use of tasers will decline in the near future, on-going obligation to pursue taser usage, and the ethical dilemmas and ramifications of such, needs to continue. At this time, tasers hold a position of usage for our society, and until better alternatives are invented, this form of deterrence needs to remain as an option.
Amnesty International, (2008, December 16). Safety of tasers questioned as death toll hits 334 mark. Amnesty International, Retrieved September 12, 2009, from http://www.amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/usa-safety-tasers-questioned-death-toll-hits-334-mark-20081216.
Braswell, M. C., McCarthy, B. R., & McCarthy, B. J. (2008). Justice, crime, and ethics, 6th ed.. Newark: Andersen Publishing.
Bui, E., Sourkes, M., & Wennberg, R. (2009, March 17). Generalized tonic-clonic seizure after a taser shot to the head. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 180(6), 625-626. Retrieved September 13, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.
Force Science News, (2009, July 23). Research roundup: Latest on tasers, arrest-related deaths, excited delirium. The Street Survival Newsline, Retrieved September 12, 2009, from http://www.policeone.com/use-of-force/articles/1858751-Research-roundup-Latest-on-Tasers-arrest-related-deaths-excited-delirium/.
Helmer, S., Maher, J., Mangus, B., Shen, L., & Smith, R. (2008). Taser and taser associated injuries: A case series. The American Surgeon, 74(9), Retrieved September 5, 2009, from Research Library doi: 1579821331.
Langton, J. (2007, December 1). The dark lure of pain compliance. The Star, Retrieved September 12, 2009, from http://www.thestar.com/News/article/281499.
Marinaro, J., Rehman, T., & Yonas, H. (2007). Intracranial penetration of a taser dart. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 25(6).
Ready, J., & White M. D. (2008). The taser as a less lethal force alternative: Findings on use and effectiveness in a large metropolitan police agency. Police Quarterly, 10(2), Retrieved September 5, 2009, from http://pqx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/10/2/170 doi: 10.1177/1098611106288915.
Riordan, Teresa (2003, November 17). New taser finds unexpected home in hands of police. New York Times, Retrieved September 12, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/17/business/technology-new-taser-finds-unexpected-home-in-hands-of-police.html.
Truscott, A. (2008). A knee in the neck of excited delirium. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 178(6), 669-670. Retrieved September 5, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database doi: 10.1503/cmaj.080210.