The decision to equip police sergeants in New York with Tasers is a sound one. The squeals of alarm in some quarters will be deafening, but these protests will demonstrate both misunderstanding and the power of emotive words. The deploymenty of Taser offers the opportunity for the NYPD to respond swiftly and effectively in a manner less lethal than the use of firearms alone. It must be remembered that Taser weapons reduce – if not completely eliminate – the risk of fatality.
The great fallacy is that Taser should either be a magic pill, something that works all the time, or not be used because it is too dangerous. Rubbish. Taser is an effective tool, provided that its implementation is correctly managed. No piece of equipment can solve all the ills of policing. A Taser, a new pistol, a new information technology system optimizing response times or a weapon for seeing inside buildings as part of hostage scenarios, is going to solve the perceived ills of policing.
Where the rubber meets the road is the police officer who must make decisions and apply their judgment and training in order to successfully resolve a situation. The implementation of Taser weapons is such an example; the sergeants must be correctly trained in its use, in the risk factors associated with it, and the use of the system as both a deterrent and a weapon. Assuming that such implementation takes place, then the much more contentious question of the conditions under which Taser should be used arises.
The weapon system disables. It replaces the use of lethal force, and is most reasonably deployed in situations where a suspect is armed with a bladed weapon, such as a knife or samurai sword, or there is a clear risk to officers from engaging with a suspect, such as when the suspect has taken a drug cocktail or similar, and is both enraged and very difficult to subdue; in both situations, the alternative – lethal force in the former, a mass of officers having to engage with the suspect physically in a melee where the precise use of force becomes difficult and accidents can happen in the latter – is not attractive. Of course, there is a moral hazard question, in the knowledge that the suspect, once tasered, will survive, which may encourage some to be freer with its use. If a risk, this will be contained by robust training and accountability measures.
I have little patience for the malicious law suits and complainers, “I shouldn’t have been Tasered, it compromises my human rights,” and yet, when questioned, it turns out that the plaintiff had a knife, was high on drugs, and posed a threat to both the police and community. To be blunt: tough. In the old days, you would have been shot, and died. Stop complaining; if you don’t want to be Tasered, put down the knife. It is not complicated.
Regrettably, there are incidents where suspects die from the application of Taser. I do believe these instances are to be regretted, and the response must be robust; this response should be partly effect-based (without Taser lethal force would have been used), partly investigative (what medical conditions led to the use) and partly procedural (what events led up to the use). Robust investigation will answer many concerns, but the sergeants’ training must be effective enough to equip them with the decision-making processes to weather an investigation successfully.
An understanding of the risk factors gives those using the equipment the opportunity to make a judgement call. The bottom line, ignoring publicity and lawsuits and razzmatazz is that there is a small risk that if you get shot with a Taser you might die. Therefore, law enforcement must be judicial in its use – hence the need for training. Suspects need to take seriously the warning from a member of law enforcement, “If you do not comply, you will be Tasered.” At the same time, the public need to be educated on the realities of the weapon system, and its implementation is to reduce the risk of fatalities, but that the risk is not removed completely.
I do not advocate a police state, but I do advocate common sense. When an officer is pointing a Taser at you and threatening to engage, that is not the time to debate the relative merits of the human rights implications of a electrical device as a law enforcement tool.
Under an effective roll-out including a robust training cycle – which one assumes will occur – the wider dispersal of Taser is a great thing for the citizens of New York. It will reduce the risk of fatalities in the NYPD’s response to incidents, increase the ability of the NYPD to respond to incidents effectively, and create a very real deterrent. I applaud the decision of the NYPD to increase their range of responses in the Use of Force spectrum.