If you have never been to my blog before, welcome!
Let me give you a little relevant background information about myself: I am a Trainer for a law enforcement agency, and have been doing this for thirteen years. My primary focus is combat firearms and the Use of Force.
I live and work in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.
In the past several months, the use of TASER weapons by law enforcement officers nation-wide, has come under the microscope of many Americans. The proliferation of websites (none of which I will grace with additional exposure) that spend their time ranting against cops is just one such societal indicator of the concern that is felt by so many citizens.
Today, I am taking part in a day of action... or a blog blast on the issue of TASER use in America. This say is sponsored by my friend Wayne, from The Electronic Village.
Considering what I do for a living, It probably won't surprise any of you that I fully support the use of TASERs as an effective tool in law enforcement. A TASER, properly employed, tends to result in less harm to a non-compliant suspect, and in increased protection for law enforcement personnel as well as the general public... but more about that later.
When discussing the use of these weapons, we use the term TASER which has become common even thought the term TASER is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle (Tom Swift being a fictional hero of the inventor of the device). Later, the name TASER became the brand name for the manufacturer of the most commonly used version of this class of weapons. Where I work, the term we use for this sort of product is a bit more usage-specific. We call them "Electronic Defense Modules". Well, no matter what you call them, the effect is the same, which brings us to our discussion of where TASERs fall in the so-called force continuum, and it's application.
Before we even get to the heart of all of this, we need to have at least some grounding in when, why, and how police officers are supposed to use force while on duty, and there is no other way to get at that than to have a discussion on the law.
Let me state, right from the beginning. I am not a lawyer. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject of the law. What I am doing here, is giving you an overview of some legal aspects of the use of force by police officers. Nothing that I say here should be construed as some sort of legal consultation. Nor am I acting in my official capacity as a lawman... I am merely having a discussion with some friends on a subject that I know something about.
How's that for a disclaimer?
Oh. Wait, there's more: Nothing included in this post should suggest that I am speaking on behalf of any U.S. governmental agency or organization, or that my opinions reflect those of any agency, organization, or official.
Are we clear? Ok, let's get down.
It breaks down like this: The use of force by police officers in the U.S. is governed by two particular Supreme Court cases. Those cases are Graham v. Connor (use of force in general), and Tennessee v. Garner (the use of deadly force by police). These decisions are at the heart of all discussions on whether or not a particular instance of the use of force was lawful. Please note that lawful doesn't necessarily coincide with "authorized".
In the case of Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the use of force by an officer, upon a "seized, free citizen" will be based on the standard of "objective reasonableness" under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The court stated that "based on a totality of circumstances the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of the reasonable officer on the scene, rather than the 20/20 vision of hindsight and the calculus of reasonableness must embody allowances for the facts that police officers are often forced to make split second decisions in circumstances which are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving."
The reasonableness of the officer's decision will be based on the facts and circumstances known to the officer at the time force was used. What was determined or discovered after force was used cannot be used to justify or condemn the use of force.
Please understand something, right from the start, no law in this country requires that a cop has to be right when he or she uses force on whatever level. That's right, we don't have to be right. We only need to be "Reasonable". That's the law, friends. Was a particular use of force reasonable for the officer given the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time of the incident? That's it.
Let's talk for a little while about some of the things that will drive an officer's decisions on the use of force. These things include, but are not limited to the severity of the crime; was the suspect an immediate threat; was the suspect actively resisting arrest, or evading arrest by flight? Those are some of the things that might drive the decision of whether or not to use force.
Some factors that may drive an officer's decision on how much force to use are listed here:
Use of alcohol or drugs
Mental or Psychiatric History
Size, weight, age, condition of the officer and/or suspect
Availability to weapons
Officer to suspect ratio
History of violence
Previous use of force resulting in injury
Duration of the action
Presence of bystanders
These things (and more) are what an officer has to make decisions about when deciding what level of force/she may have to apply. I could talk about each one of these things individually, but that would take more time than I have to type them. Having said that, if you should need further explanation on any of those factors, please ask me either by comment or email, and I will explain more fully.
OK, now would be a good time to talk about the early application of force. There are times when an an officer may, and indeed should, use force early on in a confrontation. The early application of force generally results in less force used by officers, fewer injuries to the officer AND suspect. The early application of force should happen when a suspect becomes non-compliant, or gives any pre-assault indicators, such as assuming a fighting stance.
Remember... "force" can mean different things, so let's pause for a moment to talk about them. Where I work, there are five separate levels of force, and the are:
Officer Presence - The ability to effect or change behavior based on presence/appearance alone.
Verbal Commands - Firm, clear, concise directions
Soft Techniques - Minimal chance of injury eg; "come along" holds, Pressure points, electronic defense modules, chemical agents.
Hard Techniques -Greater chance of injury, eg; Strikes, kicks, blows, throws, take-downs, & impact weapons
Deadly Force - Any force which is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury.
As you can see, electronic defense modules, or TASERs, for our purposes, fall under soft techniques, because when properly used, they generally result in minimal (if any) injury.
Now, having discussed the levels of force, let's talk about what so many people refer to as the "Force Continuum". That term usually refers to some sort of matrix that shows what an officer's reaction should be to certain behaviors by a suspect. There are many variations of the continuum and I have added an illustration here to give you an example of what they look like:
The diagram that you see above, used to be in common use in federal law enforcement, but is now a relic. It is a relic because it gave students that notion that each step in the "pyramid" had to be exhausted before an officer could move to the next level of force. That notion couldn't be further from the truth.
Now, this is where the discussion frequently gets ugly, and strays from the factual into the realm of perspective and strong opinion. There are people who believe TASERs to be weapons of torture, used by police officers as punishment... as a "torture" device, based on the fact that it's use causes extreme pain. I disagree vehemently with this assertion.
When using TASERs (a soft technique), cops are no more using them as a torture devices than they would use an expandable steel baton (a hard technique) to strike someone. It's that simple. Yes, simple.
Let's move a little further and talk a little more about deadly force, since the number of TASER-related deaths are at the heart of the wider discussion on TASERs and their use. Many of the folks involved in this discussion want TASERs banned. Many want TASERs to re-classified as "near deadly force" weapons. I say that these things are unnecessary because TASERs rarely kill. Yes, I know, any unintended death is a bad thing, but generally speaking, TASERs rarely result in the death of a suspect.
Let's talk a little more about what deadly force is... and ins't
- The use of any force that is likely to cause death or
Serious Physical Injury
- A substantial risk of death
- Extreme/protracted physical pain
- Protracted loss or impairment of the function of a bodily
You see, when force is used and it unexpectedly results in death, the force level hasn't necessarily changed. For instance, if I were to get in a fistfight with a subject, and a punch in to his face caused a sudden stroke which killed him, I haven't used deadly force... I have used a hard technique that resulted in unexpected death. An unexpected death isn't deadly force just because someone died.
The point that I am trying to make with all of this is that all sorts of weapons can kill. All sorts of empty hand techniques can kill, weapons designated as "less lethal" (not NON-lethal) can kill... but it is important to remember what deadly force is: Force which is LIKELY to cause death or serious physical injury. TASERs don't fit that description.
TASERs aren't the devil. Cops that use them aren't the devil, either. If fewer people entered into public disturbances or violent confrontations, TASERs wouldn't be used as much, subsequently reducing the number of TASER-related deaths, nation-wide.
TASERs save lives. Sometimes they take lives, too. It's sad, but there it is.
I regularly give our officers and agents a presentation on the Use of Force... it is an annual requirement where I work. The presentation is about ninety minutes... I hope that the shortened version tat you see here helps in some small way. If you have questions, contact me via comments or email.