Current Issues in Criminal Justice
This comment considers the debate surrounding the introduction of the stun-gun or ‘Taser’ into Australian policing and cautions against its introduction as general issue weapons. This caution is set against concerns about the regulation of police use of force generally and in light of critical commentary on sub-lethal weaponry internationally, especially from the United States where Taser use by police is widespread. The paper traces the introduction of Tasers as general issue weapons in Australia and outlines the arguments for and against their introduction. Critical issues addressed include the number of deaths attributed to Taser use in the United States, the problems associated with identifying stun-guns as contributors to death, the capacity of such weapons to reduce the incidence of lethal force in policing and the potential impact of Taser use on over-policed populations.
Police scholars and other observers are currently watching the roll out of stun gun (or Taser) technology in Australia with some concern (Meehan 2008; Singer 2008; Law Institute of Victoria 2004). While Tasers are being embraced by Australian police, international experiences indicate that this move is likely to be problematic. Research and media reports from overseas (especially the United States and Canada) show that stun guns have been used against children, elderly people, pregnant women and individuals who have already been restrained and/or who pose no danger to themselves or others. There are examples from the United States of Tasers being used by police to control protestors and otherwise obtain compliance from people posing no immediate threat to anyone (Pittsburgh Independent Media Center 2005; Killian 2007; Bobb et al 2007). They are evidently used in contexts where resorting to firearms would be entirely inappropriate, calling into question the assertion that stun guns save lives. There are examples of police accidentally drawing and firing firearms when they intended to deploy a stun gun, with fatal consequences (see Bier 2003). ‘Childish horseplay’ has also resulted in one officer ‘tasering’ another. A Florida Sheriff’s deputy was suspended from duty for 12 days after one such incident (NBC News Channel 2008). There is even a documented case of an officer being reprimanded after accidentally ‘tasering’ himself (Author unknown 2007). Perhaps of most concern is an Amnesty International report concerning some 290 deaths following Taser use in North America alone (Amnesty International 2007). Some incidents have resulted in legal action against police and also stun gun manufacturer, Taser International, the world’s leading supplier of conducted energy weapons to police, including those Australian forces that have adopted the weapon.
‘Taser’ is a specific brand of stun gun – hand held, gun shaped electronic weapons that shoot two needle tipped darts into the skin, trailing a fine wire electrical cable connected to the hand set. The firing range varies from 7 to around 11 metres (depending on the type of cartridge used), delivering an electric shock designed to temporarily paralyse the muscles of the recipient and immediately incapacitate them. The open-circuit (or arcing) voltage of a Taser is 50,000 volts, although Taser argues that the peak voltage delivered to the body is 1200 volts, in five second bursts and the average voltage delivered is 400 volts (Kroll 2008). Compressed nitrogen is used as the firing mechanism. Stun guns can also be used in ‘drive stun mode’, in direct contact with skin, causing severe pain but not muscle incapacitation. While the Taser company itself continues to claim that their weapon has never been identified as a cause of death, Amnesty International and other civil liberties groups have serious concerns about the validity of this claim, recording over 290 deaths following Taser deployment in Canada and the United States (Amnesty International 2007). Scientific evidence regarding the capacity of a stun gun’s voltage to cause death is cloudy. While some studies have shown that heart rhythms can be affected, many others show the opposite. The majority of the latter are either partially or fully funded by the market leader, Taser International, hence the uncertainty and conjecture that surrounds the findings. There are most certainly serious difficulties presented to Coroners required to identify Tasers as causes, contributors or correlates in cases where death has occurred (Vilke nd). At present, it would seem that the facts are simply not clear on this matter: this alone is good reason to support a cautionary approach to the general issue of Tasers to police in Australia.
Stun guns, or Tasers, are at the cutting-edge of policing technology and are currently being introduced as general issue weapons for police in several Australian states. The police view on the matter is generally that this technology is invaluable in terms of making the job easier, and safer for officers: allowing them to avoid using other types of force, such as hand to hand combat, baton use and at the far end of the spectrum, lethal force. Of concern to many observers is the range of options within the ‘force continuum’ that Tasers can replace and their ability to considerably ramp up police reliance on using force. This would perhaps be unproblematic if we were sure that use of force by police was always legitimate, well reasoned and accountable. Sadly, the record shows that it is not. One of the earliest and most influential American police scholars, Jerome Skolnick, noted the problematic outcomes of the combination of danger and authority in policing as follows:
The combination of danger and authority found in the task of the policeman (sic) unavoidably combine to frustrate procedural regularity … Danger typically yields self-defensive conduct, conduct that must strain to be impulsive because danger arouses fear so easily. Authority under such conditions becomes a resource to reduce perceived threats rather than a series of reflective judgements arrived at calmly … As a result, procedural requirements take on a ‘frilly’ character, or at least tend to be reduced to a secondary position in the face of circumstances seen as threatening (Skolnick 1975:44).
Such observations are key, as they make clear the reasons why the circumstances of sub-lethal weapon deployment require careful observation. Of particular concern are the circumstances considered as ‘dangerous’ by police, along with whom and what is being endangered. Where life is at stake, we have a clear reliance on police to prevent a fatal outcome (for police, offenders and especially for bystanders), but where it is merely authority that is endangered, there is a reliance on the agents of accountability (and other observers) to strive towards clear limits on police use of force.
Limiting use of force successfully is far from a simple task, scholars have often argued that we can’t even be sure how excessive force ought to be defined (Klockars 1996; Goldsmith 2000). Despite this, such limits are crucial, having a clear link to the legitimacy of policing itself. Alienated populations are prone to the rejection of police authority, which may result in a downward spiral in police/public relations, exacerbating issues of law and order rather than ameliorating them. This outcome has concerned police managers from the earliest times. In his examination of policing in Victorian times, Wilson (2006) states ‘police authorities discouraged overt brutality, primarily because it undermined police legitimacy by shattering the desired image of the constable as a citizen-in-uniform’ (p57). The potential of modern ‘softer’ weapons to shatter the cherished Peelite notion of policing by consent is significant, and in the absence of firm accountability processes there is a danger that their use will come to be seen (by both police and some citizens) as essential. The rapid spread of Tasers across the United States, and now Australia, suggests that this is already taking place.
Along with capsicum sprays, Tasers fall under the general term non-lethal weapon (the term used most commonly by the Taser company when marketing their product and also adopted by The United States Department of Defense) although there remains conjecture about the validity of this term, mainly because there is no certainty that such weapons are, in fact non-lethal (Feakin 2006). Other terms include ‘less-than-lethal’, ‘disabling’, ‘incapacitating’, ‘worse-than-lethal’, ‘soft-kill’, ‘pre-lethal’, ‘paralysing’, ‘sub-lethal’ and ‘compliance’ weapons (Feakin 2006; Wright 2002). The confusion surrounding correct terminology reflects the doubt cast over the notion that these weapons do not cause death. Much of the support for the introduction of Tasers into Australia is based on claims that they will reduce the instance of lethal force, and be used as an alternative to such force. The record so far, however, supports the fact that they will actually be used in addition, as a function of what has been termed ‘mission creep’ (Lewer & Davison 2006).
The implications of introducing stun gun technology into Australian policing are the main focus of this discussion. There are several issues of concern including the assertion that such weapons will reduce the need for police to resort to firearms, the growing array of weapons available to police in any given situation (the issues here are both practical and philosophical), the adequacy of police training in using the weapon, the context within which they are used and the socio-demographics of their most frequent targets. It is potentially problematic for police to include Taser technology in their arsenal in the absence of strict accountability processes. History has already shown, especially in Victoria (the main field of this author’s observations of policing), that the accountability of police for use of weapons is lacking in several crucial aspects (see Freckelton 2000). The factors contributing to this are well established: evidence about the circumstances in which weapons are deployed is generally supplied by police, use of force is investigated by police who may be sympathetic towards the point of view of those under investigation and it is difficult to attribute culpability to police when those involved are often amongst the most disempowered (and unhealthy) groups in society. Finally, where death or injury is the result of police actions, the record shows that juries are reluctant to bring down guilty verdicts against police who are seen as only trying to do their jobs in the best way they can. There seems to exist a certain ‘moral division of labour’ that makes people reluctant to blame police for tasks that we are reluctant to undertake ourselves (Alexandra 2000). This not only makes accountability for weapons use problematic, but the notion of ‘non-lethal’ weapons also becomes especially appealing.
The adoption of Taser stun-guns into Australian state police forces began with their introduction into specialist policing units in all states (Law Institue of Victoria 2004). Western Australian police led the charge, introducing them to their Tactical Response Unit in 1999 and making them general issue for operational police by early 2007. Assaults on police in that state have reportedly dropped by 40% and no fatalities have yet been directly linked to the weapon, although at least one has occurred following the use of a Taser (Bennet 2007; Eliot 2007). The Northern Territory has also adopted stun gun technology; 74 Tasers have been introduced, with six in Alice Springs and one in each bush station (Barwick 2008). Queensland is soon to follow suit, with Tasers having been trialled there (in Brisbane, Logan and the Gold Coast). The Queensland Minister for Police recently announced that Tasers will become general issue in June 2008, following the 12-month trial period (Crime and Misconduct Commission 2008). This move has been criticised, however, labelled an ‘apparent impulse decision to satisfy demands for the weapon by the Queensland Police Union’ (Meehan 2008). Police in Queensland have already admitted to investigating a complaint that a handcuffed suspect (held in the Cleveland watchhouse) was repeatedly Tasered after swearing at police (Meehan 2008).
Police in New South Wales are on the verge of introducing the weapons, with the state government recently approving the introduction of 229 Tasers at a cost of $1 million. It is expected that at least 2000 will be issued across the state (Linnell 2008). The Victorian government established a working party on the issue in April, 2007 that seemed ‘set to recommend their widespread introduction’ (Singer 2008). At the time of writing, however, no such introduction has yet occurred. Former Western Australian Chief Commissioner of Police, Bob Falconer has recently been quoted in Victorian press (Anderson 2008), urging the Victorian Commissioner, Christine Nixon, to stop dragging her feet on the issue and bite the proverbial bullet. In his view, she should ‘make a decision now and end this procrastination or avoidance’ (Anderson 2008). This was followed by an appeal from the wife of a deceased shooting victim who argues, ‘there would be more people alive if the police were using the stun guns’ (Anderson 2008).
Commissioner Nixon’s cautious approach to the introduction of stun guns is not without merit. Although Falconer believes that the efficacy of Tasers has been well established, Amnesty International and other concerned groups beg to differ. That Coroners (and the marketing arm of Taser International) find it more difficult than Amnesty to see a link between Taser use and fatal outcomes is not the only issue. The contexts in which police resort to using stun guns are also important to consider. Many instances of stun gun use have now been recorded that appear disproportionate to the threat being faced. The use of Tasers in the United States shows they are frequently deployed against people who flee from police after minor offences such as shoplifting and traffic misdemeanours. They have also been used to break up brawls. Of further concern is their increasingly widespread use by prison officers and against those who are otherwise already held in police custody but refusing to comply with police (Meehan 2008; Wray 2008). Clearly, Tasers are not always used in place of lethal force, but as a compliance weapon, forcing people to acquiesce to police commands or respect their authority (Pittsburgh Independent Media Center 2005; Meehan 2008; Bobb Barge & Naguib 2007). While such use may have merit in some circumstances, that peaceful protestors and restrained, non-violent suspects have fallen victim to stun guns raises a separate set of concerns regarding appropriate limits on the use of force by police.
It is not without irony that the United States is leading the Taser charge given its history of striving to protect the individual from arbitrary displays of state power. The highly decentralised structure of policing, a legacy of a highly liberalised political philosophy, has now resulted in Tasers being widespread throughout the policing structure and used against citizens in circumstances not possible under a more centralised structure. For instance, there is much debate on University campuses about the carriage of stun guns by ‘campus police’, and one particularly disturbing example of a university student being repeatedly Tasered after refusing to comply with commands to leave a University library (Bobb et al 2007). This incident has been subjected to serious criticism regrading the disproportionate nature of the Taser use and gives credence to the abovementioned concerns of Taser and ‘mission creep’.
Canadian police have also had a less than smooth experience since the introduction of the weapons in 2001. Following the highly publicised death of a Polish citizen at Vancouver International Airport in November, 2007, an inquiry was launched by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which recommended, amongst other things, that Tasers be reclassified from ‘intermediate’ to ‘impact’ weapons on the force continuum, that far better record keeping practices be introduced and that quarterly and annual reports be produced to allow open scrutiny of the circumstances of their use (Commission for Public Complaints Against RCMP 2008).
Other practical concerns regarding the introduction of Tasers include where they sit on the force continuum (as compared to capsicum spray, for example) and also the practicalities of carrying them routinely (given that police are already carrying firearms, sidearms, handcuffs, torches and capsicum spray canisters). There have already been examples in the US where officers have mistakenly drawn a firearm and fired when they meant to deploy their Taser. The city of Madera and an officer have filed a suit against Taser International arguing that the company ‘provided related training and representations in such a manner so as to cause any reasonable police officer to mistakenly draw and fire a handgun instead of the Taser device’ (Bier 2003). The victim in this case died from his injuries, although the death was ruled accidental and no charges were laid against the officer herself. In another case, a 25-year-old Canadian man is suing police after he was shot when the officer mistakenly drew his gun instead of a Taser as he had intended (Author unknown 2008). The officer has since resigned. The family of a Canadian man, Robert Bagnell, who died in 2004 after being ‘tasered’ is also pursuing the matter in the courts, although a Coroner’s Inquest found that Taser use had not contributed (Canadian Press 2006). Bagnell was drug affected and suffering a psychiatric condition at the time of his death.
These cases support a careful approach to the introduction of stun guns and show the dangers inherent in the rhetoric of lethal-force-reduction so often cited by Taser proponents. Media reports about the introduction of Tasers in Victoria suggest that while it is very probable they will find their way into general issue police weapons ‘it has not yet been decided how they will be carried’ (Anderson 2008). This measured approach is laudable, given the demonstrated potential for officers to make mistakes.
Following from this is the issue of how officers are expected to decide which sub-lethal weapon is most appropriate in a given circumstance. How could a capsicum spray worthy incident be distinguished from one requiring a Taser? Would the introduction of Tasers make capsicum spray use less frequent? The answers are as yet unclear but officers are certainly in an unenviable position when required to choose between a growing array of possible weapon alternatives, when it seems clear that most cases where top-end force is necessary require split second decision making. It may be that there are some compelling operational and tactical reasons why senior police should analyse their options carefully before adding stun guns to their officer’s arsenals.
A related issue concerns the nature and extent of police training with regard to sub-lethal weapons. The quality of training can have a real bearing on the behaviour of police under pressure. This was aptly demonstrated during the Victoria Police shootings era (from 1988-94) where overly confrontational training modules (the Firearms Officer Survival Training Unit, borrowed from the FBI) were identified as a significant contributor to the disproportionate number of fatal shootings attributed to Victoria Police officers at that time (see Task Force Victor 1994). This brings to mind an old and revered adage amongst use of force scholars: to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail (Chevigny 1995). No officer wants to see good training hours go to waste and this mentality has the potential to increase the number of incidents in which Tasers become the weapon of choice, which in turn may increase the risk of injury or death.
As mentioned above, inadequate training is beginning to be identified as the precursor of problems for US police mistakenly drawing firearms instead of Tasers, although the apparent remedy is to insist that the stun guns be made to look and feel less like guns as opposed to a careful consideration of the necessity of such weapons at all. The family in the Bagnell case mentioned above have specifically identified inadequate training in their lawsuit against Taser International, Vancouver Police Department and their Chief along with five individual officers (Canadian Press 2006). The Bagnell family has accused Taser International of failing to conduct adequate safety testing of its products and of promoting the Taser as non-lethal when it knew, or ought to have known otherwise (Canadian Press 2006). It remains to be seen how this factor plays out within the Australian context.
Perhaps of more significance is the estimated cost of training police regularly in Taser use. Each Taser cartridge costs around 15 US dollars, so for a police force of around 10,000 to fire one during training even just once a year would cost US$150,000 (Brown 2008). That comes on top of purchasing and maintaining the weapons. So although Tasers might be the ‘easy’ policing option, they are certainly not going to be cheap.
As already mentioned, the fact of ‘mission creep’ and the nature and context of incidents during which stun guns are used is a key point for scholars to observe as Tasers roll out in Australia. In the absence of accessible record keeping practices by police regarding Taser deployment, it is probably going to be the media and public witnesses to events that will keep us informed about these issues. Reliable record keeping has been a key recommendation in several analyses of Taser deployment, capsicum spray use and also of specific incidents, though we are yet to see the extent to which such recommendations are brought to fruition (see Crime and Misconduct Commission 2005; Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP 2008).
The Crime and Misconduct Commission in Queensland has already provided clues to the possible outcomes of Taser deployment, finding that 33% of OC spray incidents have involved Indigenous Australians who make up just 3% of the overall population (Crime and Misconduct Commission 2005). There are also indications from the US that African Americans are the targets of Taser use at higher rates than other racial groups (The Associated Press 2008). Tasers are marketed as a safer option than capsicum spray and several US policing organisations report a sharp reduction in capsicum spray deployment after the introduction of Tasers. It is reasonable to predict that Tasers in Australia will result in the replication (and amplification) of patterns of over policing already well documented (Cunneen 2001). Community representatives and health professionals in the Northern Territory are already expressing concern about the likelihood that Aboriginal Australians will potentially have severely adverse health reactions to Taser use due to already poor health standards (Author unknown 2008b). There are clearly grounds for concern about Tasers as general issue weapons in a country with a history of unequal and confrontational policing tactics (Cunneen 2001; McCulloch 2001). These patterns and methods ought to be acknowledged and corrected rather than ignored and repeated.
Also of concern is the potential for Taser use during incidents involving the mentally ill. There are countless examples in the US media of psychotic and severely drug affected individuals suffering adverse reactions after being ‘tasered’. Many of those who have died following sub-lethal weapon use have been drug affected, or have a diagnosed mental illness (Amnesty 2007; Kroll 2008)). Such individuals sometimes pose a danger to themselves, but not always to others, and so the justification of using a sub-lethal weapon to contain the situation is far from clear-cut. A Melbourne man died after being sprayed with capsicum spray (reportedly to prevent him from stabbing himself) at the time of writing (Author unknown 2008c). The issue of de-escalation of situations involving mentally ill people is obscured in current debates about a condition known as ‘excited delirium’, which although it does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is routinely touted as the actual cause of many deaths that follow stun gun use. This conundrum is the current focus of this author’s research and will form the basis of ongoing work. Nonetheless, policing strategies that give due regard to human rights considerations would presumably seek to control critical incidents involving the mentally ill (especially) in ways that strive to avoid fatal outcomes rather than what appears at present to be rather risky tactics involving the deployment of electrical currents.
Despite the problems of accountability mentioned above, there are ways in which technological advancement may assist in controlling Taser use by police. A recent legal settlement in Utah, USA involved a man awarded US$40,000 after his passive resistance of a Highway Patrol Officer resulted in him being ‘tasered’ twice (Bergreen 2008). The video footage taken from the patrol car was posted on YouTube two months after the event, and has had in excess of 1.7 million hits. An investigation was launched within two weeks of the posting and settlement subsequently reached (Nizza 2008). The aforementioned Canadian Inquiry was also prompted largely by the posting of phone-camera footage on YouTube by a witness. This indicates the power of a (now enhanced) ‘court of public opinion’ to bring about previously unseen levels of scrutiny of police behaviour. This gives some hope regarding the public regulation of sub-lethal weapons use.
Another positive is that newer Taser models are potentially easier to regulate, as they are equipped with microchips with the capacity to log the date, time and duration of usage. Such data is regularly relied upon to assess police recall of events when called to account for their actions, though it is not yet clear how reliable or manipulatable this data might be. A further innovation is the ‘Taser cam’, which is a camera mounted on the Taser battery. It records up to 90 minutes of audio and video once the Taser is turned on, and functions in low light (Dondoneau 2008). So far, less than 10 US city police organisations have adopted the cameras, but as litigation against police increases their use may rise. While this might help ensure that police remain accountable for their use of stun guns, they have not been adopted by the majority of Australian police using Tasers (with the exception of NSW). Budgetary constraints may well be responsible for this as the cost of the enhanced model is greater. While this might explain why they have not been embraced, it is also reveals something about the emphasis placed on accountability for use of force across jurisdictions. Police Chief Boisse Correa of Honolulu (where Tasers with cameras have recently been adopted) has been quoted as saying, ‘It’s costly, but it’s worth it’ (Dondoneau 2008). Perhaps, once a potential for abuse or misuse has been established, the enhanced models may become the preferred option. If Tasers are to be broadly embraced, this would be a welcome step.
There are clear grounds for concern about sub-lethal weapon use in Australia. In this brief comment I have been able to present only the tip of the iceberg and it is likely to be the case that the ensuing decade will bring more deaths in custody, as a result of the over-policing of certain groups and the broadening of the capacity of police to restrain citizens through use of force. Though many police and their union representatives might be enthusiastic about the introduction of Tasers, other observers are well founded in their cautionary approach. It would be far better for police to wait for definitive data on this issue than to rush in blindly, only to regret being held to account later. Tasers are certainly yet to earn their stripes before being accepted as ‘non-lethal’, and suggestions that their introduction is supported by an ability to reduce deaths and injuries at the hands of police should be regarded with caution.
PhD Student, Monash University
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