Taser Trouble: Is EID Technology a Crutch for Law Enforcement? - ITS Tactical

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Taser Trouble: Is EID Technology a Crutch for Law Enforcement?

By Richard Johnson

A Smith & Wesson .38 revolver and a pair of handcuffs were typically the only things carried on a police officer’s duty belt when the first Taser was being developed. Now a Taser is typically just one of seemingly dozens of gadgets hanging off a cop’s Sam Browne.

The Taser has earned a place on that belt due to its ability to quickly subdue combative criminals, while reducing the number of injuries and deaths to officers and suspects.

But, has the Taser been so successful that it has become a crutch for law enforcement officers? Are officers using the Taser when other force options are more appropriate?

What Is a Taser?

Taser is actually a company, not a model of product. TASER International was founded in 1993 and can trace its roots back to the late 60’s. Based in Scottsdale, AZ, they are the largest manufacturer of electromuscular incapacitation device (EID) weapons on the market.

Taser manufactures a variety of EID weapons including handgun-shaped devices and sabots deployed from shotguns. Probably the most common Taser model in police use is the X26, a one-shot, handheld unit typically carried in a belt holster.

The X26 and similar models work by launching two darts from a cartridge, out and away from each other at a slight angle. In ideal conditions, the darts pierce the skin of the suspect and a “shaped” electrical pulse flows through the wires, with the body of the suspect completing the circuit. As the electricity flows through the circuit, the muscles of the body react, typically locking out and becoming useless to the suspect.

The maximum range of a Taser varies depending on the cartridge used. Typical ranges are 21 to 25 feet. According to TASER International, EIDs have been used on humans more than 2 million times, with a little more than 1/2 of the times in training.

Taser as a Use of Force

The Taser is typically found in department use of force continuums somewhere below lethal force. Depending on the department, the use of a Taser may be very restricted, sometimes to the point of rendering the tool useless. Other agencies give officers greater latitude in deciding when to use the Taser.

When properly used, Tasers can reduce the numbers of injuries to both suspects and officers. A US Department of Justice report indicates that the use of a Taser reduced injuries by 60% when compared to other intermediate weapons. The company estimates that 5.4% of Taser uses prevent the use of deadly force by officers.

In my own jurisdiction, there is a consortium of mental health providers who have unequivocally endorsed the law enforcement use of Tasers. They strongly support the use of EIDs due to the greater ability of law enforcement to end violent encounters without resorting to deadly force.

I know that I have been on many scenes where the use of a Taser allowed officers to take a violent subject into custody without injury to anyone. Without a Taser, there would have likely been hospital or morgue trips on some of those calls.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

The problem with the Taser is its strong point: it works very well. Of course, I shouldn’t blame the problem on the tool. Rather, I should look at the users.

I’ve actually heard newer officers say that they won’t ever have to fight with subjects because they will just “Tase them.” They treat the Taser like a Star Trek phaser set to stun.

The problem is EIDs don’t work all the time. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes, due to distances, they are not a good choice. Sometimes a suspect will rush you without giving you a chance to pull out your Taser.

Tasers vs. Deadly Force

It appears that police officers are relying so much on the Taser that even in obvious lethal force encounters, the Taser is being used instead of a firearm.

I offer several cases:

In a rural Florida county, a deputy sheriff responded to a complaint about an emotionally disturbed man with a knife. The deputy, who was alone when he confronted the armed subject, deployed a Taser, which was ineffective.

The armed man then attacked the deputy, stabbing him several times. The deputy shot and killed the subject, avoiding death himself due to the knife being stopped by the deputy’s body armor.

In a Tennessee case, officers responded to a robbery in progress and were fired on by the suspect as he exited the building. One of the officers was hit.

As the suspect fled on foot, a responding sergeant struck the suspect with his car. The sergeant exited the vehicle, and deployed his Taser. It is believed the sergeant saw the suspect’s gun laying in the road, away from the suspect.

The Taser failed to incapacitate the suspect. The suspect pulled out a second gun and killed the sergeant.

In both of these cases, the law enforcement officers were clearly faced with deadly force situations. In the first, the deputy was alone and confronting an emotionally disturbed person who was agitated and armed with a knife. The deputy did not have a cover officer on scene.

In the second incident, we can only assume the sergeant believed the man was unarmed because one of the suspects firearms was laying some distance away. A Taser is a completely inappropriate tool in this scenario for the reasons clearly seen in hindsight.

The suspect was still in the commission of multiple violent felonies and continued to present a threat to officers and the public. The only correct response for a single officer confronting the subject is deadly force.

As with the first incident, the sergeant was acting alone, without a back up officer readily available.

Tasers Are Just One Tool

Tasers are not magic weapons that work all the time on every suspect. I have seen EIDs fail due to battery problems or the probes not making contact with the suspect. I also know of several cases (beyond the ones mentioned above) where the suspect was simply unaffected by the Taser.

The Taser is a good tool, but it is simply one more weapon we carry on out belts to help us deal with violent encounters. Use it when appropriate, but only when it is the reasonable choice.

In the above examples, a Taser may have been a good tool if other officers were on scene to provide cover with firearms. But in the circumstances illustrated, the Taser was a poor choice.

Do not neglect your “hands on” pepper spray and baton skills. Do not use a Taser when deadly force is called for and don’t use your Taser as a crutch.

Stay safe!

Richard is a Police Officer with a mid-sized department in the Tampa Bay area and also publishes the police training site, BlueSheepdog.com

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  • Eric S.

    Good article. I’ve seen the Taser fail several times either by the probes not deploying, not enough juice (operator headspace error), or bad shot placement. One even blew up right in the Deputies hand when he pulled the trigger. When it does work its great but always have that backup plan ready to go.
    I also agree that the Taser has no place leaving its holster in a deadly force encounter. It blows my mind when I see or read about officers using the Taser instead of a gun.

    • Thanks Eric. There was a recent Taser failure in a deadly force encounter near where you work. Fortunately, the back up plan worked fine.

  • While I agree that the officers in the incidents described should have used their firearms, the officer in the first incident would likely have faced difficulties with the media, the family of the perpetrator and possibly the public. They would have tried to second guess him and ask “Why didn’t he just use the Taser?”

    I know this is likely to happen, because I have seen similar incidents happen. I remember an incident in Arlington, TX (late 1990s, if I remember correctly) where an officer was called to a domestic disturbance. The person making the disturbance charged the officer while holding a knife and the officer shot him. The family and the news media were asking why the officer didn’t shoot the knife out of his hand or use a Taser on him.

    Though the officer was injured, at least he can say he tried to use less lethal force first and does not have to be put through the wringer by the media.

    • TacticalTom

      I would guess that you aren’t and have never been in law enforcement.
      First, you can’t worry what the public or media might think or do to you. The #1 goal every day is to come home the same way you left it. That means no new holes, all limbs intact, and still walking.
      The fact is that anytime a person dies in a police situation, no matter what the officer tried or did, the media will crucify him because it gets ratings and sells newspapers. Does this mean that officers don’t make mistakes or the wrong decisions, No, but a deadly force situation is the most important decision an officer will ever make and is often the situation that he/she receives the least amount of training on.
      Secondly, go to the range sometime and try to shoot something the size of a kitchen knife, while it’s moving rapidly, from a distance of 7 feet (the average distance of a deadly force encounter), while someone is trying to stick said kitchen knife in your eye. Let me know the results.
      Lastly, do you think your wife and kids would rather lose you or take a beating in the media and possibly find a new job?
      An officer must do his/her job, to the best of their ability, with the training they’ve received, and within policy. The public needs to be better educated about the realities of police work and specifically about the use of deadly force and when it is appropriate.

    • Adam

      This is a common citizen misconception and while an untrained citizen may think it’s possible to do trick shots like that in a defense situation we all know it’s not, and any department public affairs office worth the money their paid would be able to articulate this. Also unless your department is at odds with your district attorney I doubt that they’re going to charge the officer in a use of force situation like that. At least I think my department would do those things, as that shoot would have followed our use of force policy.

    • Hi Tim,

      I think TacticalTom and Adam hit on many of the factors that go into a dynamic, deadly force encounter.

      In the first incident I described, the officer was injured and not killed merely due to a combination of luck and his bullet resistant vest. Vests are not normally “stab-proof,” so luck played a much larger role than it should have. Regardless, any knife attack is a deadly force situation, and should be responded to accordingly.

      The press are not experts at the use of force, and rarely do any research on the topic prior to reporting on it. Family members of the attacker are always going to say the police did the wrong thing, regardless of what was done. So, in almost every officer involved shooting, the ignorant press will publish whatever an emotional family member says.

      Officers have to work from a point of reasonableness, not what an emotional family member might say.


  • Are officers using the Taser when other force options are more appropriate?

    Absolutely. And on the other end of the scale, officers are using the Taser when no force is appropriate.

    We as a society need to decide where to put Tasers on the force continuum. When they first hit the streets, it was directly below lethal force. Now, in some places it seems to be right beside the authority voice. In the latter instance, it is getting people killed needlessly (less lethal, not non-lethal) and quickly eroding the public’s respect for the badge.

    • Hi Phelps,

      Obviously I was talking about one end of the spectrum, but you do bring up another misconception that many people have about the Tasers: that they are used when no force is justified. Any time any force is used when it is not justified, the officer is subject to discipline as well as civil and criminal penalties. The use of force is covered under state law with rulings from the Supreme Court to further guide law enforcement.

      From my personal experience, using a Taser when someone offers to do violence to me or another is much more likely to prevent injury to both the suspect and officers than striking them with a baton, manipulating a joint or landing a blow with my hands/knees/elbows/etc. Research studies have shown this in multiple jurisdictions across the country.

      Also, I’m not convinced that the Taser has killed anyone. Its funny how more than 1/2 of all Taser discharges have been on willing participants in training, and none of those folks have died. Back in the 90’s we saw the same hype from certain hard left groups and the media about pepper spray killing people. As soon as the Taser became popular, all of the “pepper spray deaths” suddenly vanished.

      A research report released in May looked at all of the so-called Taser deaths and could not find any conclusive evidence that the use of a Taser had a causal relationship with the death. Other factors, such as heavy drug use, are typically found in the deceased. Weird.

      Don’t blame the tool because of the actions of an individual. I doubt you would support disarming the public because one idiot commits mass murder.


    • Ken

      Actually, I believe one M.E. had ruled the use of a Taser on a subject was partially to blame for the death. It wasn’t THE cause of death, but was a contributing factor. Of course, anti-Taser zealots have latched onto this ONE ruling without regard to other factors in the death.

      Regardless of contributing factors or not, the media and anti-taser folks love a good headline. A sad one comes to mind of the “Taser-related death” of a young man running from the police on a bicycle. Setting aside the policy violations and poor judgement for a moment the officer pulled his patrol car along side the suspect and deployed his taser. Directly after the subject lost control of the bicycle and fell into the path of the patrol car. Taser-related? Loosely. Cause the subject to lose control? I don’t see how as the officer missed his subject completely. Still, the media was calling a taser-related death. More like a cruiser-related death if you ask me. Oh, and why was he running? Probably because he was a 17 yo with a handgun.

    • Hi Ken,

      I think several medical examiners have ruled that a Taser was either the cause, or partially the cause of death in several incidents. That study I referenced looked at those cases and others.

      There is a problem with a M.E. ruling cause of death in these incidents, because they sometimes lack actual evidence and incorrectly draw a causal relationship. In other words, their thinking is the suspect was Tasered and later died, therefore the Taser is the cause of death. Of course, that doesn’t consider factors typically associated with excited delirium such as drug use, exertion from fighting with the police, etc.

      I have not ruled out that a Taser could be a contributing factor in some rare cases, but none of the research I have read tends to indicate there is a causal relationship.


  • Ben Girdler

    Good training can help reduce an officer’s reliance on Taser. I know I was more Taser ready so to speak before I took some ground fighting classes and refined my “hands on” skills. I still believe Taser is a valuable tool, but with good training my “tool belt” of force options is more well rounded and it makes me a better officer.

  • Ken

    I think the problem with tasers are they a very good tool, so good is that it becomes the “go-to” tool of choice. It becomes automatic for some officers to pull a taser. It goes back to muscle memory, or in this case, brain memory. You react how you were trained and if you’re training yourself to always go with the taser then that’s what you’re going to do when you don’t have time to think.

    Good article.

  • Jackel

    At the small department that I volunteer for we had an officer seriously hurt when her she tazed a suspect who was clearly unaffected by the device. The problem in that situation was that she was not in a deadly force situation when she deployed the tazer, but it immediately escalated into a deadly force situation when she deployed it and it did not have the desired effect on the suspect. I do not mean to criticize or second guess the judgement of our injured officer. She was incredibly brave and incredibly lucky to have survived the assault. My point is the same as yours that tazer does not make you ten foot tall and bullet proof. So be safe.

  • Kevin

    I caution you on the use of “use of force continuum” as many departments have moved from that concept to one more in line with “Graham v Connor” which essentially states that force need only be necessary and reasonable, otherwise spot on article.

    • Hi Kevin,

      I don’t know how many departments have moved away from the continuum model. Some have, but I don’t know if the majority have. Besides, state laws can be much more restrictive that what the Supreme Court finds. For example, the Court may see LVNR as reasonable, while a state may codify it as lethal force.

      Also, strike “necessary”. Graham and subsequent cases have indicated “reasonable” is the operative word. For example, in my prior article on threat identification in low light shootings, the Louisiana officers used reasonable force since they believed the subject was pointing a gun at them. In reality, the force was not “necessary” since the object was a cell phone and he was bluffing. It is a subtle, but important, difference.


  • Centurion

    Good article. I agree that the Taser is an excellent tool but I’ve also seen where officers believe it to be the cure all device. It does not replace going hands on, the chemical agent, baton, or certainly the firearm, it’s just another tool in the toolbox.

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  • Madness

    My agency doesn’t issue tasers. As a result, we employ a lot more “hands on” and stick techniques that the public loves to gobble up as us beating people. I’ve caused serious debilitating injuries to suspects with my 26″ wood baton, that they would have avoided if we had Tasers. Do I care either way? Nope, I was justified. But from a departmental perspective, it would cut down on the “bad press” of a cop sticking someone and busting their kneecap, or shooting someone who maybe could have been tased. Sometimes people ask why “we (meaning all cops where I work) don’t tase more people.” I explain “we dont have them. You either get punched/kicked, pepper spray, baton, or get shot.” For some reason the public just refuses to educate themselves about how their local police operate. Nothing better than seeing their faces after listing off a short list of painful choices since they refuse to give us tasers.

    On the other hand, people will complain regardless, and it just adds one more thing a lawyer can hammer me on, so I’m comfortable not having one. It does keep us up on our hands on and fitness, and makes me employ verbal judo more often. That and I have the waist of a 12 year old, so I can’t fit a taser holster anyways.

  • Deckard

    I think all of you are missing the bigger picture. The officers in those situations, i’m sure, would’ve liked nothing better than to have an immediate leathal force option. But alas, our current PC media climate and degenerate law system have made anyone willing to unholster their sidearm cringe at the inevitable legal battles… assuming they aren’t dead from the encounter.

  • Andrew

    Great article sir!

    In 2008 I had the opportunity to go to TASER HQ to be a test subject. I was hit twice and both times was for 10 seconds. We were given an objective that once the TASER was deployed we were to walk seven yards and grab a $20 bill hanging off a piece of string. The first round I was able to walk the full 7 yards but in my attempt to grab the money I fell right over and could not get up. The second hit that I endured I was able to walk the seven yards, grab the money and proceed to walk another 2 yards all while remaining standing. I should also share here also that not only was this a controlled environment but I had my shirt off to ensure positive contact.

    Despite all the technology in the world, it is not infallible. While I pray to the good Lord above that I never have to use lethal force I would rather be tried by 12 than carried by 6.

    On a side note, I am more of a hands on kinda guy. I was issued an X26 back in 07 and I have still yet to deploy my TASER on an active subject. I’m not saying that I never will but I definitely remind myself constantly that it is an option on my tool belt, but not an option for a lethal force situation.

    Again, thanks for the reminder!! Gonna have to share your article with my co-workers!

    Stay Safe out there!

  • J. Z.

    I agree with this article. I am a Taser instructor, and I routinely have to remind my students that technology is great until you need it to work. I carry my baton first and my Taser second when given the choice. Mainly because its easer to reload a baton and you don’t have to carry limited cartridges for it.

    While going through my instructor class, the master scolded me for using two hands to draw and position my Taser. He was suprised when he tried to rush me in a scenario and I shot him instead of tased him. Its a nice tool when you have the time to deploy it properly, but in sudden assault you need to remember to either shoot or beat the hell out of the assailant.

    Either way, stay safe!

  • MPF

    I have just been introduced to your blog and have been reading some posts here and there. As a former LEO, one of the issues that is not fully covered is training and personal responsibility. The officer MUST completely understand the use of force continuum and the policies of his/her department with complete operational knowledge. In other words, what does this mean in the real world? In 5 years with a street crimes unit, I had numerous hands-on encounters with subjects, on video. There were several instances that “looked bad,” but through proper articulation and understanding of the legal merits of the use of force, I never once had a problem with a jury or policy infringement. (in layman’s terms we practiced ask-tell-make) Ultimately, I cringe when I see some of these incidents on TV. Officers need to take a more proactive stance toward understanding the legal precedent as it relates to their job and articulate in clear language WHY they did “xyz”. Until folks start making better wages and are given more rigorous training, these incidents will continue.

  • matxcliff

    where can i buy this item?

  • Topher

    With Tasers killing more than 500 people a year be ready for the lawsuits. 42 USC 1983 strips CIVIL SERVANTS of their LEO “immunity” when they are breaking the law to enforce the law. I can’t speak for other states but here in Colorado CRS 16-3-103 states that a stop can be preformed for any “crime”. 1 Chitty Gen. Pr. 14 defines a crime as a FELONY. This is just one of several due process LAWS civil servants break every day. If one should deploy a taser during one of these illegal procedures they shall open up their bank accounts to a knowledgeable sovereign. Did I forget to mention the vicarious liability also associated with 42 USC 1983. That means the watch commander and chief of police could hand over their pensions as well. Attempted Murder would look awfully good on a LEO resume.

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