Study: Tasers, properly used, limit injury
Conducted electrical devices (CEDs), such as Tasers, limit injury to police officers and suspects if used properly, according to a three-year study released by researchers at the University of South Carolina and funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The study, one of the largest epidemiological studies to look at injuries from police use of force, comes at a time when more than 10,000 U.S. police agencies now use Tasers as one method to control suspects. The study also provides valuable understanding of injuries that result from other less lethal devices, such as pepper spray and batons, as well as firearms.
Dr. Geoff Alpert, a criminal justice professor and one of the nation’s leading authorities on policing, said the study is particularly important for its findings on the use of pepper spray and CEDs, which have generated controversy and been linked to deaths, overuse and abuse.
"We found that the use of pepper spray and CEDs, such as Tasers, reduced the likelihood of injuries to both officers and assailants," said Dr. Geoff Alpert, principal investigator of the study.
Alpert said the study, which included the review of 24,000 cases as well as national data, provides a much-needed picture of police use of force in America. Conducted from 2005 - 2008, the study was funded by a $650,000 grant from DOJ's National Institute of Justice.
The research team also comprised Dr. Michael Smith and Dr. Robert Kaminski, University of South Carolina; Dr. Lorie A. Fridell, University of South Florida; Dr. John MacDonald, University of Pennsylvania; and Bruce Kubu, Police Executive Research Forum.
The team's findings were based on data from a national survey of law enforcement policies and practices on use of force and statistics from law enforcement agencies in Miami, Fla., Seattle, Wash., Columbia, S.C., Austin, Texas and Orlando Fla. They also interviewed more than 250 officers and citizens.
Their data provide valuable insights on police use of force before and after the use of CEDs. Alpert says questions about the safety and misuse of Tasers mirror concerns raised in the 1990s when pepper spray became a popular method used by law enforcement.
"Pepper spray was the 'new' less lethal weapon. Now it's the Taser, and, if used properly, it can be a great tool," Alpert said. "Often just seeing the laser dot of a CED on them will stop an assailant."
CEDs work by using two probes with small prongs on the end. Once discharged, propelled by compressed air up to 15 feet, the prongs attach to a person's clothing or skin and emit electrical impulses that temporarily impair a person's neuro-muscular control. This gives an officer a brief window to cuff a suspect and to control him.
Because CEDs impair neuro-muscular control, they are particularly effective on men because of their greater muscle mass.
The study looked at reported cases of death associated with the use of CED. While low in rate, a few resulted from excessive rounds of CED use. Whether use of a CED led to or played a role in the death in the majority of cases, was unclear.
Excessive use and the potential for abuse was the second key finding of the university study. "We found evidence of 'lazy cop syndrome,'" Alpert said. "Some police officers are over-reliant on CEDs and are not putting their hands on the suspect. Prisoners are punished when officers use a CED too often and at too low of a level."
Degree of time between discharges can vary, he said. Typically, CEDs are set at five-second cycles. If after 15 seconds or three "rides" of a CED and the assailant is not controlled, officers should resort to other methods such as hitting or using a baton, Alpert said. Alpert said good CED policies and training, monitoring and systems for accountability can remedy and discourage such abuse.
"It would be a horrible mistake for cops to lose their Tasers," Alpert said. "It is a matter of controlled use and good training."
Findings from the study will appear in the American Journal Public Health in 2010.
CED (Taser) use and abuse
- DOJ-funded study defends responsible use of the devices
- Tasers and pepper spray reduce injuries to officers and assailants
- Overuse, and temptation to do so, acknowledged in study