To contribute to the discussion on Taser’s and other “less lethal” or “less than lethal” weaponry, I wanted to contribute a letter I sent to the NY Times back in July 2007, regarding an editorial
“Last weeks editorial on Tasers (6/
24/08) is problematic. Citing Amnesty International’s report, it asserts that 300 people have died around the world from the use of the Taser. But what is the statistical significance of this number? Citing the number “300” does little to inform the reader of the relative risk of death or injury from the Taser since we don’t know how many people have been Tasered, under what conditions, and with what consequences. It may well be that more have died from batons, police officers using there hands and feet, or the “dog pilling” that used to restrain violent persons. Any risk analysis of the Taser must situate the Taser within the universe of force options available to the police and the risk of any police-citizen encounter. We also need to know whether injuries and deaths, over all, are increased or reduced by the introduction of Taser. More to the point, Amnesty’s report does not represent a consensus within the scientific, medical or law enforcement community.
Scientific debates aside, it is worth reflecting on the representation of what is normal police work for police in the editorial. The Author writes, “[Tasers] might make sense as a last-resort alternative to lethal force, but it would be folly to allow them to be used in more routine situations like crowd control or policing political demonstrations” (italics mine). It is common knowledge to law enforcement, sociologists and criminologists who study the police, that “crowd control or political demonstrations” are not part of routine police work. They are rare exceptions and typically limited to large urban departments. As such articulating Taser debates in terms of political demonstrations and crowd control is not useful.
It is worth inquiring why the Taser has so captured the imagination of the public and the media. Ultimately it has become a fetishized object for debating the very legitimacy of the police. As the epitome of rationalized and technological state control of the unruly, it is a powerful metaphor for the left to think the police within the neoliberal age. But metaphors also can limit our understandings. The fact is police are primarily negotiators, beings who talk their way through conflicts rather then resorting to violence. This has been substantiated by 30 years of sociological research, which time and time show that police ultimately are best understood as supervisors of “volatile working groups.”
Yet misperceptions of what is “normal” police behaviors fetshizes the Taser at the expense of a cogent examination of routine police behaviors that do endanger the public. For example, recently within the law enforcement community there has been introspection regarding pursuit and emergency driving. Routine police driving behaviors put citizen’s lives and property in danger on a scale greater than that posed by the Taser. According to NHTSA, in 2006 alone, there were 404 pursuit related fatalities, 133 (33%) were innocent bystanders. Between 1983 and 2006 there were at total of 8139 fatalities. I cite these statistics to put the danger presented by the Taser into perspective.
The attention attracted by the Taser also distracts from the social contexts that incubate situations in which police officers typically use Tasers. Officers tend to use force on people who are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or experiencing mental health crises. These persons typically are more resistant to negotiation and verbal commands, behave erratically, and don’t respond to hands-on police tactics. These are also disproportionally the economically and socially dispossessed. Police are called in as a last resort when individuals and groups have exhausted their local resources. Unfortunately the vertiginous withdrawal of government from providing basic social, health, and mental health services and under funding of drug and alcohol treatment programs, means that police officers respond only after problems have been left to fester . By the time police become involved the situation has deteriorated to the point that force is likely needed to resolve a situation through arrest.
If we want to reduce deaths in situations involving Tasers we would do better to eliminate causes of poverty, help raise the standards of living of vulnerable populations, and cease using the police as an answer to the decline of welfare institutions.”