Cambridge University researchers studying the effects of carrying Tasers by British cops recommended that police keep them hidden from view to neutralize the “weapons effect” which they said incites aggressive behavior by both officers and suspects.
Police officers carrying Tasers are more likely to apply force and/or get assaulted, according to a London study published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.
Using data collected from nearly 6,000 incidents involving both Taser-armed and unarmed officers during 2016 in England and Wales, researchers found evidence of what they called the “weapons effect” – a psychological phenomenon in which the sight of a weapon incites aggressive behavior.
Even though the Tasers were rarely used, the number of use-of-force incidents involving officers carrying the stun weapons was 48 percent higher than incidents involving officers on unarmed shifts. At the same time, unarmed officers accompanying Taser carriers used force 19 percent more often than those on Taser-free control shifts.
Barak Ariel was lead author on Cambridge study of Tasers.
“Within this theoretical framework and given the mature body of evidence on ‘weapons effects,’ it is perhaps unsurprising that we found significant increases in the use of force by, and assaults on, officers in this study,” concluded the study, authored by lead researcher Barak Ariel of the University of Cambridge and five others.
The researchers recommended that officers conceal their Tasers to control for the “weapons effect.”
1,000 Deaths Involving Tasers in 2017
In the U.S., Tasers are commonly used by police officers as non-lethal tools to neutralize the threat of violence by suspects. However, a 2017 report by Reuters documented more than 1,000 deaths involving Tasers, nearly half of which resulted in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Last year, a man who was set on fire by an officer’s stun gun in 2015 settled his excessive-force lawsuit against police in Virginia for $6.5 million.
Also last year a Pennsylvania man who was videotaped being Tasered by police while sitting on a curb filed a lawsuit against the department for use of excessive force.
In response to these and other incidents, some U.S. police forces have sharply reduced the user of Tasers.
Adopting protocols used by some other large law enforcement agencies, Chicago police are now discouraged from using Tasers against people who are simply running away or are otherwise vulnerable to injury.
The Chicago Police Department has tightened its policy on Taser use to discourage officers from shocking people who are running away or are otherwise vulnerable to injury, reports the Chicago Tribune. The change was ordered in October, six weeks after a Tribune story pointed out that previous rule changes the department had announced on Taser use did not specifically ban shocking people who simply run away and pose no serious threat. That prohibition has been adopted by other large police departments and endorsed by reform advocates and use-of-force experts who note that Taser shocks can cause people to fall and sustain devastating head injuries.
Facing a controversy sparked by officers’ use of force, Superintendent Eddie Johnson oversaw a sweeping overhaul of the department’s policies and introduced the new rules in May. Experts criticized the Taser policy as too permissive, while a police union argued the department didn’t have the right to change the rules without collective bargaining. But five months after the new rules were unveiled, the department issued a Taser policy containing a lengthy revision. The order now includes a section that advises officers not to shock people who run away, are intoxicated or could fall and suffer a head injury, among other things. The new language stops short of firmly banning Taser uses under those circumstances but says officers should avoid such uses “when practicable.” Chicago police have increasingly embraced Tasers as an alternative to shooting people. The department has increased its stock of Tasers from 745 in 2015 to about 4,000 now and plans to buy about 3,000 more in the near future.
Massachusetts is one of four states that ban civilians from possessing Tasers and stun guns. A U.S. District judge is expected to rule soon on whether the ban violates the Second Amendment.
Since its landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court has largely left it to lower courts to decide how far the government can go in regulating firearms.
Those limits are now being debated again in a challenge to a state law that has nothing to do with guns. Massachusetts, one of four states that ban Tasers and stun guns for civilian use, has become a new battleground in the fight over the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Lyn Bates spent years training herself in firearms and self-defense techniques, and helped start a group that teaches other women to do the same. But because of the ban on stun guns, she says she’s forced to choose between using lethal weapons or using nothing at all.
Lyn Bates. Photo courtesy Lyn Bates
When she first heard about the ban, Bates recalled thinking that it was “bad law that made it harder for women in Massachusetts to be safe.
“It never occurred to me that that law might be unconstitutional.”
Bates and two other plaintiffs, represented by a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., are challenging the Massachusetts ban as unconstitutional. On the other side, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is defending the state’s power to prohibit the weapons for the sake of public safety.
The case, Martel v. Healey, is now in U.S. District Court, awaiting a judge’s decision on summary judgment.
Less than a year ago, the same Massachusetts law was challenged by Jaime Caetano, a woman who was convicted under the ban after police found a stun gun in her purse.
Caetano’s case ultimately made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the state court’s rationale in upholding her conviction was improper and vacated the conviction.
But the court did not directly address whether the ban itself was unconstitutional.
Now, Bates and her co-plaintiffs are challenging the law head-on.
Taser “Pulse” model, used by civilians. Photo courtesy Axon Enterprise Inc.
Their argument is that stun guns are neither dangerous nor unusual, a key standard under the Heller ruling, in which the Supreme Court recognized for the first time an individual right to bear arms.
Attorney General Healey insists that the weapons are both dangerous and unusual, and without any direct precedent in the colonial era. And even if they were protected under the Heller precedent, the state argues that it has a legitimate interest in banning them to protect the public.
“While they are less lethal than firearms, they can nevertheless be deadly,” the Attorney General argued in her brief.
(The Attorney General’s office declined to offer further comment beyond its briefs in the case).
Tasers and stun guns have drawn controversy in recent years, though primarily over their use by law enforcement. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post identified at least 48 deaths that year during incidents in which police used Tasers, but called the link between those deaths and the Tasers “unclear.”
That year, a Department of Justice report found that the percentage of local police departments authorizing the weapons increased from 7% in 2000 to 81% in 2013.
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, Tasers and ordinary stun guns are actually distinct. Stun guns require direct contact and deliver a painful shock, while Tasers can be deployed from a distance and can immobilize a target for as long as 30 seconds.
Massachusetts is also arguing that alternatives to stun guns are readily available to those seeking tools for self-defense, ranging from guns to pepper spray.
For Donna Major, another of the plaintiffs in Martel v. Healey, that choice is not good enough.
According to court briefs, Major “has a moral aversion to taking human life and cannot contemplate any circumstances under which she would use a firearm, even in self-defense.”
The case is just one piece of a bigger debate that has been simmering for nearly a decade: how far should the Second Amendment go in protecting an individual’s right to bear arms?
Second Amendment law remained dormant for decades until the 2008 Heller case and a 2010 case which applied that ruling to the states. Those decisions left open major questions surrounding the interpretation of the Second Amendment, and how far legislatures can go in regulating guns.
That is typical for the development of constitutional law, according to Clark Neily, who was a co-counsel in the Heller case and is now Vice President for Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute.
With First Amendment law, for example, “the Supreme Court didn’t try to answer every question that might come up about free speech all in one case or all in two or three cases,” said Neily.
“The whole judiciary has to kind of feel its way along from that initial point when the Supreme Court says on a particular right: yes, this is something that courts need to be protective of.”
Gun rights advocates have taken those open issues to the courts in an effort to develop and expand the meaning of the Second Amendment. They have challenged laws over who can be prevented from owning guns, where guns may be prohibited, what kinds of weapons can be banned, and much else.
“I think it would be fair to say that in the federal judiciary as a whole there remains a kind of a skepticism — and perhaps a dislike — of guns and gun rights,” said Neily, while noting that there are many exceptions.
Federal courts of appeals have been divided over the contours of the Second Amendment, and until last year, the Supreme Court stayed silent over those circuit splits.
But in its first Second Amendment case since 2010, the Court took on Jaime Caetano’s challenge to the Massachusetts stun gun ban. After dispensing with the case without ruling on the constitutionality of the law, the ban is now back in court.
The Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which filed a friend of the court brief in the Caetano case, saw an opportunity this year to levy the challenge more directly.
The group has previously been involved in several high-profile cases, including challenges to affirmative action policies, the Voting Rights Act, and public employee union fees.
“The court has not yet squarely held that electrical weapons are covered by the Second Amendment, but a fair reading of recent decisions provide good reasons to think that it will, and that it will also find that a complete ban on such weapons unconstitutionally violates the Second Amendment rights of individuals,” said Jennifer Flagg, a spokesperson for CIR.
In recent years, stun gun bans in several other cities and states have been repealed or reversed.
To bring the case, CIR found Bates, Major, and a third plaintiff named Christopher Martel, an electronics sales engineer who wants to carry a stun gun for self-defense.
Bates was sympathetic to their efforts. A few years earlier, she found out about a woman arrested for carrying a stun gun outside a nearby supermarket in Ashland, Massachusetts, where she lives.
“The first I heard of that incident I remember thinking how awful it was for her to be arrested for breaking a bad law just to protect herself,” Bates said.
That woman was Jaime Caetano, whose case ultimately reached the highest court.
“How amazing is it that a situation in my little town made it to the Supreme Court and I could be part of it?”
Yoni Wilkenfeld is a freelance journalist based in New York, covering the courts and the criminal justice system. Readers’ comments are welcome.
In a survey to law enforcement officials, the company formerly known as Taser International announces a product that will allow citizens to submit photos or video evidence of “a crime, suspicious activity, or event” to Evidence.com, the company’s cloud-based storage platform, to help agencies “in solving a crime or gathering a fuller point of view from the public.”
Axon, the largest vendor of police-worn body cameras, is moving into the business of capturing video taken by the public, The Intercept reports. In a survey to law enforcement officials, the company formerly known as Taser International solicited naming ideas for its “Public Evidence Product.”
The product will allow citizens to submit photos or video evidence of “a crime, suspicious activity, or event” to Evidence.com, the company’s cloud-based storage platform, to help agencies “in solving a crime or gathering a fuller point of view from the public.”
Civil rights advocates see this as another untested effort to co-opt community oversight and privatize criminal justice. “When police body cameras were initially established, it was because citizens were clamoring for police accountability,” said Shahid Buttar of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“But we’ve seen how cameras have been more useful for police investigations than for accountability. This product realizes those dangers and takes them to a new dystopian level by crowdsourcing the collection of evidence and turning it over to law enforcement.”
Body camera vendors like Taser originally pitched the collection of video evidence to lawmakers as a way to increase accountability, transparency, and trust between civilians and police. Three years and several million taxpayer dollars later, those promises have been called into question. Body camera footage has rarely been used to indict officers for brutality, and several states have introduced measures to restrict the public’s access to it.
For privacy and civil rights organizations, enthusiasm about the technology has given way to concern about beat cops turning into walking surveillance cameras. Buttar and others fear that by adding civilian footage to Evidence.com, Axon is expanding this dragnet.
Axon has signed lucrative contracts with major police departments while it offers the rest its hardware free of charge, because its revenue comes from monthly subscriptions to Evidence.com. Axon’s CEO has called this model “Dropbox for Cops.