Are Tasers Being Overused?

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PA / Landov

A Taser demonstration

Though the Taser has been around for more than 30 years, the brand-name stun gun gained new notoriety last month when Andrew Meyer, a 21-year-old student, scuffled with University of Florida police and uttered his now infamous entreaty "Don't tase me, bro!" — just moments before he, in fact, got tased. The rather dramatic incident, captured on camera and uploaded to YouTube, spawned a catchy new anti-establishment anthem, picked up and repeated mostly by college students. But it has also renewed questions about whether Tasers pose any danger, and whether the police are using them too often.

Early concerns about Tasers centered on the issue of safety, but the controversy has recently taken a new twist, focusing on the conflict between civil rights and police procedure. Though the device was initially developed as an alternative to lethal force, it has become a go-to weapon in situations of noncompliance even when the use of firearms would not be considered — like the incident with Meyer, who agreed to 18 months of probation on Tuesday in order to avoid criminal charges of resisting arrest. "I think because it's electricity, and because of past use of electricity in torture across the world, there's a thought that law enforcement could use [the Taser] to the same end," says Lt. Dave Kelly of the Phoenix Police Department. "In other words, not to use it to gain control over somebody but to punish somebody, to create pain for someone."

If the idea of tasing simultaneously fascinates and frightens people, it's probably because the technology is a bit of a mystery. "It's harder to understand the science behind [Tasers] than to understand bullets or batons," says Scott Greenwood of the Cincinnati chapter of the ACLU. Tasers are the only stun gun that can be fired from a distance, and they deliver a high-voltage electric shock that momentarily paralyzes victims but doesn't kill them. According to Greenwood, the zap from a Taser is no more harmful than a shot of pepper spray to the face. "[Getting tased] is both an incredibly painful experience and a very temporary one," says Greenwood, who supports the use of the device by law enforcement. "As soon as it's off, you feel nothing. But if someone attacks me with a baton, I'm going to feel that for a while afterward."

Still, critics argue that Tasers have been adopted too hastily by police. Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based maker of the device, began offering the weapon to law enforcement agencies in 1998. Since then, more than 12,000 departments have adopted it. Yet critics say that more studies need to be done to determine the safety of the "less-than-lethal" device. Last month researchers at Wake Forest University released the first large, independent study of injuries associated with Tasers, finding that they are relatively harmless and pose minimal risk of injury. In a review of nearly 1,000 cases, 99.7% of those subjected to a Taser had no injuries or only mild ones, such as scrapes and bruises. Even so, Dr. William Bozeman, one of the study's lead researchers, was quick to add that the Taser isn't "a magical sort of thing that can't hurt anybody ever."

Questions about the device's safety linger at least partly because there are no official standards for its use. Because it isn't classified as a firearm by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Taser is exempt from federal firearms requirements and regulations. And while the Consumer Product Safety Commission has jurisdiction over the models sold to consumers, it has done no investigations of its safety.

The Taser used by police occupies a shifty place on what is known as the "use-of-force" spectrum, a guide that determines which weapon a police officer should use in any given situation. Yet these standards vary from city to city, and no universal code applies to the country's law enforcement force as a whole. "If a guy has a stick, you don't pull a shotgun out," says John Ryan, a former CIA agent and assistant director of the special investigations group of the Government Accountability Office, who oversaw a 2005 study on the use-of-force policies regarding Tasers. Beyond those basics, however, individual police departments have the freedom to create their own policies — regarding Tasers as well as other weapons. "Law enforcement in the United States is territorial," Kelly says. "Police work is different in different parts of the country. It'd be nice to have a standardized use-of-force policy, but it's still going to be applied differently."

Last month, authorities in Warren, Ohio suspended a police officer after a video surfaced showing him repeatedly tasering an intoxicated woman, even after she had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. That same week in California, an officer tasered an autistic teenager who had been running in and out of traffic as he tried to escape a treatment center. Other cases across the country include the use of Tasers on pregnant women, the elderly and children as young as six. Tasering someone on drugs has proven to be especially dangerous and often lethal.

Rather than regulate the Taser's use, some government officials hope to replace the controversial device altogether. The Department of Homeland Security is funding the creation of a new non-lethal weapon called the LED Incapacitator, a flashlight-like device that uses high-intensity LEDs, pulsating at varying rates, to render a suspect temporarily blind and dizzy.

For now, however, the only organization that regulates or tracks the use of Tasers is the company that makes the device. With civilian models (Tasers were first sold to the public in 1993 out of Sharper Image catalogs), consumers must register their products with the company, says Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International. Another feature, known as the "anti-felon identification," or AFID, system, enables the Taser to disperse confetti tagged with serial numbers when it is fired, linking a specific Taser to the scene where it is used. But these systems are available only on devices sold to civilians, not to law enforcement. The models sold to police contain a data-port system, however, that records every time the device has been deployed.

Despite the questions about its use, Tuttle says Taser International will continue to improve and promote its eponymous device. Changes to the company's latest civilian model, however, seem to address not safety or technology, but rather fashion: The Taser will now come in pink.

At least it will be easier to spot.