Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Police stun gun use growing in popularity, controversy
Posted: Saturday, November 30, 2013
Some answers surrounding a Tullytown police officer’s use of a stun gun on a 14-year-old shoplifting suspect recently could be found inside the device itself.
An electronic stun gun has its own a version of a black box, which can provide a timeline of use, according to a spokesman for the manufacturer. The device design also allows users to determine how far away a subject was when it was fired and other information.
While U.S. law enforcement’s use of Tasers, generically called stun guns, remains controversial, recent studies found the devices are low risk and result in a low incidence of serious injuries.
Critics, though, contend cops use stun guns more frequently than necessary, and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have questions about safety.
Stun guns have grown in popularity in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. More than 15,000 law enforcement and military agencies use them, though they are associated with death and allegations of overuse and abuse.
Police used stun guns against protesters at the 2003 Miami Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstration and on rowdy fans at the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. At least a half dozen times this year cops have used stun guns on teens and children.
Taser International says “thousands” of school resources officers carry one and “hundreds” of examples can be found to show its use to break up school fights.
USE OF FORCE
Controversy swirled recently when Tullytown police used a stun gun on a 14-year-old Bristol Township teen. His mom posted pictures of the boy on Facebook, his face bruised after he reportedly fell while fleeing officers. His mother contends police assaulted her son and fired the stun gun into his face after he ran while handcuffed following a shoplifting arrest Nov. 12.
The Bucks County District Attorney’s Office and the FBI are investigating the incident.
Days before that incident, police in Mansfield, Ohio, used a stun gun on one of five teens caught fleeing from a vacant home, according to online press accounts.
Last month, South Dakota police came under fire after using a Taser gun to subdue an 8-year-old girl who reportedly stabbed herself, threatened suicide and refused police orders to drop the knife. The girl’s mother said the child was playing with a small paring knife and believes police overreacted.
At least one death this year was attributed to the use of a stun gun. In August, an 18-year-old Miami man died of cardiac arrest after he was shot with a stun gun as he allegedly resisted arrest when caught spraying graffiti, according to online media.
The Courier Times reached out to Lower Bucks police departments requesting information about policies or procedures for stun gun use. Only Middletown police responded.
Middletown’s policy states: Electronic control weapons are generally authorized to be used in circumstances during which grounds to arrest or detain are present and the subject’s actions cause a “reasonable” officer to believe physical force will be used by the subject to resist arrest or detention.
Middletown considers stun gun use an “intermediate significant” level of force when lower levels of force have been exhausted or, depending on the circumstances, deemed unreasonable.
Among the actions the department deems justifying the use of a stun gun: violent, threatening or “potentially” violent behavior, physically resisting, self destructive behavior and running away to avoid arrest or detention, according to the policy.
Most U.S. law enforcement agencies have a “use of-force continuum” covered in training, during which officers learn to use suitable force levels depending on circumstances up to the use of firearms, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
A 2011 Department of Justice report on police use of force, Tasers and other “less-lethal” weapons found most law enforcement agencies do not allow stun gun use against a subject who nonviolently refused to comply. But six in 10 agencies allow for the use against a subject who tenses and pulls when an officer tries to apply handcuffs, the report said.
The study’s most significant finding was that the use of pepper spray and stun guns can “significantly” reduce injuries to suspects and the use of stun guns can decrease injuries to cops. But the report acknowledged the results were not uniform.
A 2007 Wake Forest University study concluded that most people shocked by stun guns suffer minor injuries, and another study released last year found stun gun shots to the chest are no more dangerous than those delivered elsewhere on the body.
U.S. Department of Justice research concluded that while stun gun exposure isn’t risk-free, no hard medical evidence exists that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of the shock.
HOW THEY WORK
Stun guns are designed with safety margins so when a child is hit, serious injury should not occur as a result of being shocked, Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle said.
The device deploys two small barbed probes attached by insulated wire and can travel up to 25 feet. Both probes must hit the target to be effective and incapacitate the subject.
An automatic shut-off is triggered after five seconds, Tuttle said, though some models allow a second, five-second cycle to be activated. Once the cycle stops, the person recovers muscle control, he said.
Tasers can deliver 50,000 volts of electricity through 2 inches of clothing at a low current output. The current determines shock intensity, Tuttle said. A Taser is designed to deliver an average 0.0021 amps or 2.1 milliamps, Tuttle said.
Any amount of current over 10 milliamps (0.01 amp) is capable of producing pain to severe shock and muscle contractions; currents above 100 milliamps (0.1 amp) are deadly, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Injuries associated with stun guns typically occur as a result of falls, which can happen when muscles contract after normal electronic signals between the brain and the body are interrupted, Tuttle said. He said studies have suggested most people shocked with stun guns suffer minor injuries only, if any.
But stun gun features can hold law enforcement members accountable for how they use the device, Tuttle said.
Using calculations, the manufacturer can estimate where on the body the prongs land. That is because the top probe on the device fires where it’s aimed, and the bottom probe at an 8-degree downward angle, Tuttle said.
The angle leaves a 1-foot spread between the probes for every 7 feet of distance from a target. If a target is moving when the device is fired, though, calculating the spread is more difficult, Tuttle added.
A microchip also tracks each time the Taser is used, recording the time, date and duration of every use, Tuttle said. Newer so-called “smart” Tasers can track each pulse and whether contact was made with a human.
“That is the objective, neutral observer,” Tuttle added.
Some major organizations have questioned studies touting the safety of stun guns. An Amnesty International report released earlier this year called Taser deployment an “excessive use of force,” citing 540 Taser-connected deaths in the U.S. since 2001.
An American Heart Association study last year looked at eight U.S. cases involving people who went into cardiac arrest after being shocked by a Taser in the chest. Seven people died and one survived, leading the study to conclude that electricity delivered by a Taser can speed up the heart rate and sometimes result in cardiac arrest.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice found that, among people who had police contact in 2008, an estimated 1.4 percent had force used or threatened against them, a figure that has remained statistically stable since 2002.
Roughly three-quarters of those who had force used or threatened against them felt the police actions were excessive, the agency found. About 12 percent of those involved in a police-involved force incident reported they disobeyed or interfered with officers, according to the bureau.