Less Lethal, Not Less Responsible
The relationship between police and the members of society is built on a degree of trust, and the authority given cops is an extension of that trust. When abuses of power exist, whether real or perceived, society reacts by restricting the level of authority given to cops. This may take the form of court decisions, funding limitations or increased scrutiny of police actions.
Few things in police work are more controversial than the use of force. In recent years, societal expectations and scrutiny of police have increased dramatically. Although officers must make decisions in an instant, their actions are reviewed extensively, often by pundits with no idea of the complexity or challenge of police work. So be it; we have an awesome responsibility and should not be surprised when questions are raised.
However, we must act responsibly or we may lose one of the best tools ever to come along in policing. I’m referring to electro-muscular disruption (EMD) devices, the most common of which are the TASER and its primary competitor, the Stinger. These devices have taken policing by storm and for good reason. In case after case, the number of officer injuries, suspect injuries, officer-involved shootings and workers’ compensation claims has dropped dramatically after an agency begins using EMDs in the field. According to the folks at TASER, there are now more than 8,000 police agencies using its equipment. Many of those agencies are outfitting every patrol officer with a device. Considering per-unit cost of the equipment, this is an incredible testament to the accepted effectiveness of this innovative tool. Even more notable is the fact that many officers opt to buy their own equipment when given the option. For a street cop to put out $1,000 for something other than a firearm is mind boggling.
For as long as I can remember, the search for an effective alternative to deadly force has been somewhat of an elusive holy grail. Many efforts have come and gone, dismissed as ineffective or impractical. We’ve seen nets, ropes, glue, giant water cannons, chemical solutions, sound waves, impact weapons of all shapes and, well, you get the idea. The approach that offers the most promise, though, appears to be the use of high-voltage, low-amperage electricity to incapacitate a subject by disrupting neuromuscular control. While nothing is 100 percent effective, EMD devices show a consistently higher effectiveness than any other alternative offered to date; many agencies place them fairly low on the force continuum, meaning their deployment in the field occurs frequently.
So, what’s the beef? We may be on the verge of winning the battle and losing the war by overusing these valuable tools in situations that may not necessarily warrant the application. In other words, we may be playing right into the hands of those who would gladly take away all force options if given the opportunity. Just because you might be authorized to use an EMD device on a subject does not necessarily mean it’s the best choice considering the totality of the circumstances. I don’t intend to second-guess a field decision made in a split second by a well-meaning field officer, but you do have to wonder about some of the well-publicized deployments on small children and grandmothers. Officers must exercise some degree of discretion and use this valuable tool carefully or risk drastically curtailed deployment. If we don’t, the outcome is predictable: Weak administrators will not authorize EMD purchase or will overly restrict their use, and juries will increasingly question the judgment of field officers.
There is yet another component to this situation I must mention. Law enforcement must do a better job of educating the public as to the effectiveness of responsible EMD deployment. Take advantage of opportunities to point out the injuries prevented and tax dollars saved. When the use of an EMD device saves a life or prevents a shooting, these points must be stressed when interacting with the press. If you think this isn’t part of your responsibility and that the public will just have to accept our actions, wake up and look around. Those who oppose the use of these less-lethal devices seize every opportunity to exploit questionable deployments. There is even an organized effort designed to ban all less-lethal weapons (of course they don’t discuss the natural outcome of eliminating less-lethal options). Trainers should make discussion of this topic part of any less-lethal course curriculum, and supervisors should ensure reports fully articulate an officer’s thought process and actions. Remember the old adage, “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.”
Bottom line: If we lose these valuable tools because of questionable deployments or failure to sufficiently justify our actions, it’s our own fault. —Dale Stockton, editor