Tasers help police but are not a cure-all

Courtesy of Axon

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — It only took six minutes.

At 12:31 p.m. on Oct. 18, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers made a traffic stop near 16th and Mitthoeffer on a gray Chevy. The passenger, Truville Christian, had a gun. When Christian began to wrestle with police over the gun, officers tased him. It didn’t work.

Officers shot Christian at 12:37.

Christian survived, but the gunshot wouldn’t have been necessary if the Taser had stopped him. The electronic weapon subdues suspects without using deadly force. And although the Taser has become a valuable tool for police, it is far from a cure-all.

Since April of 2014, IMPD officers have used Tasers 1,317 times. In 484 instances, the Taser was ineffective or had “limited effectiveness.”

“When you’re in a situation like that, it’s not like being on the range,” said Jim White, a lecturer at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and former member of the Indiana State Police (he also served in the Army for 37 years).

“You have someone coming at you. There’s a lot of movement there. Sometimes you miss.”

Sergeant Michael Daley supervises the less-lethal weapon training for IMPD. He says people often blame a Taser when it doesn’t work, but the problem usually lies in how it’s used. A Taser shoots two probes that puncture the skin and transmit electricity through the body.

“If you miss with one of those probes, it’s not going to be effective,” Daley said. “It’s not because the Taser is not effective. It’s because of the deployment.”

The numbers from IMPD are actually encouraging compared to findings from other departments. The Los Angeles Police Department used Tasers 1,100 times in 2015, and the weapon subdued suspects only about half the time. In Chicago, Tasers didn’t curb the police force’s use of guns. In an Evansville incident, Tasers twice failed to subdue a suspect before he was finally arrested. The suspect actually got control of the Taser and tased the officer in the face.

Tasers can save lives. Suspects who are belligerent or on drugs pose a real problem, but these situations shouldn’t be open season for lethal force.

“As the community changes, you don’t want someone shot and killed who doesn’t have a gun,” said Reverend David Greene of Indianapolis Concerned Clergy.

Not a one-size-fits-all solution

Sergeant Chad Parks was expecting a simple exchange.

A father had threatened his children’s mother and ran off with the two kids. Parks and Officer Tony Hawk, both with the Plainfield Police Department, found out the father was on an I-70 overpass near the airport.

The father was threatening to jump off the bridge, all while his kids watched from the car. He tried goading the officers to shoot him. Instead, Parks challenged the father with a Taser. Hawk had a firearm aimed just in case. The father revealed a gun in his waistband. As soon as his hand went for his waist, Parks shot his Taser, and the man went down.

Parks is an 18-year veteran of the police force and the Taser instructor for Plainfield police.

“Our job at the end of the day is to go home, and we want the suspects to go to jail and face justice,” Parks said. In his experience, Tasers help officers and suspects avoid injury while still allowing police to make arrests.

“A Taser affects everyone. It’s the best less-lethal that I’ve ever used.”

But even the best tool has flaws. When officers shoot a Taser, it needs to penetrate skin. If a suspect has on a heavy jacket or loose clothing, there’s a higher chance the probes will not penetrate skin.

The probes of a Taser must spread out before hitting a suspect. The further they spread, the further distance the electricity will travel through the body between the probes. A bad spread means only a small muscle group is affected.

“The whole rest of the body, the other side of the body, is all the way free to move or fight or do whatever,” Daley said.

If the Taser probes don’t spread, an officer is completely relying on pain in that small area to make a suspect comply. Officers don’t like relying on pain because it’s not as effective, and the Taser is a tool for protection, not punishment.

If someone is on drugs or has some kind of mental illness, a good spread is even more critical. They are less likely to feel pain, so bringing them down requires sending the electricity through enough of the body to incapacitate them.

The other options — and their shortcomings

Police departments possess different tools to subdue suspects, each with strengths and weaknesses. For IMPD patrol officers (not SWAT or crowd control), the options are limited to Tasers, bean bag launchers, O.C. pepper spray and batons.

“When people say we have a lot of less-lethal options, I would disagree,” Daley said. “There’s stuff that’s coming out, but as of yet we still don’t have the Star Trek phaser rays.”

Parks has seen a bean bag shotgun in action, including yet another instance when a suspect had a gun and was threatening to kill himself. An officer shot the bean bag round and hit the man’s chest.

“It made him drop the gun, and we were able to go get him and handcuff him safely,” Parks said.

Parks describes O.C. pepper spray as “just 20 minutes of pure pain.” The pain continues as you shower, and the spray washes over the rest of your body. The spray uses a high concentration of oleoresin capsicum to create a burning sensation that usually lasts 30-45 minutes.

Parks won’t get rid of his Taser any time soon. “I’m a firm believer in the Taser,” he said. “I’ve used it several times.”

Courtesy of Axon

One of Parks’ favorite aspects of the Taser is how short the negative effects last.

“I’ve been tased myself. I would say it’s the worst feeling you have for five seconds. But when it’s done, it’s done. You just have this big exhaustion factor like you just worked out for an hour,” he explained.

If the Taser really is the best option available for police, there remains the difficult question of how to improve on those 37 percent of IMPD cases where the Taser wasn’t fully effective.

“Our long-term mission is to render the bullet obsolete.”

Policing is hard, and trying to make sure everyone survives a dangerous encounter takes discipline.

“I certainly understand the challenges officers face,” Rev. Greene said. “Training is always going to be something that’s important.”

The value of a Taser depends on using and maintaining it correctly. Parks stresses making sure the Taser is ready to use by conducting a “spark test” to energize the Taser and make sure the parts are working. Officers test the trigger on their Taser and make sure there is a spark between the probes. IMPD sends its Tasers to the department armorers at least once a year for a diagnostic assessment.

The entire time Parks used his Taser to challenge and subdue the man on the interstate, Hawk had his firearm drawn. When officers attempt to subdue someone with nonlethal weapons, another officer should be ready with a firearm in case the situation escalates. Daley says an average person can close a distance of 21 feet in two seconds, and officers need to be careful.

Pie chart created from data provided by IMPD

Using a Taser in close quarters is tricky because the probes don’t spread. Daley teaches officers to back up before shooting if they’re too close. 

At the end of the Taser is a small piece of metal. When the probes puncture skin but don’t spread, Daley teaches officers to push that metal into a suspect’s body at a point far from the two close probes. That “completes the circuit” and sends electricity through much more of the body.

Tasers work best when they hit the torso or legs. Parks tells officers to verbally warn people before tasing them. Most people have seen on the internet what a Taser can do, and suspects usually stop being aggressive when threatened with one.

According to Parks, the ability of a Taser to work through thick clothing is improving. Axon, the maker of Taser, is working on improvements. The company just released the new Taser device, the TASER 7, in October.

“TASER 7 is the most effective CEW [conducted energy weapon] yet, with dramatically improved performance in misses, clothing disconnects and narrow probe spreads,” Axon spokesperson Madeline Macleod said in an email. “At Axon, our long-term mission is to render the bullet obsolete.”

The company still has improvements to make. In addition to the number of ineffective Taser incidents, there’s the other end of the spectrum: Tasers can injure or kill someone. The chances of a Taser killing someone are very slim, but White says people with heart conditions are at a higher risk.

A set of guidelines from 2011 provided by the Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum advises against using a Taser on children, the elderly, pregnant women and “visibly frail persons.”

Overall, police are better trained than in the past.

“When my father came back from World War II, they gave him a badge and a gun and said go enforce the law,” White said. “It was like the Wild West.”

As police officers face mounting pressure to limit deadly force, the Taser provides a valuable tool. In a perfect world, every incident would end the way it did for Parks and Hawk with the suicidal father.

“Very rarely do you use it,” Parks said about the Taser. “But that one time that you’re going to use it, you better make sure that you’re proficient with it and you’ve taken care of it.”

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