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Back to Archives | Back to September 2010 Contents 

Taser Use and the Use-of-Force Continuum: Examining the Effect of Policy Change

By Michael E. Miller, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Legal Studies, South College, Knoxville, Tennessee; Captain (Retired), Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Orlando, Florida


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A Taser is a brand-name electroshock weapon that disrupts voluntary control of muscles. It is the policy of Police Chief magazine not to publish articles that appear to promote a particular product. The brand name is used in this article, however, because the evaluation is Taser-specific. Use of this brand name does not imply Police Chief endorsement.

lectronic control devices have been used by the police since the 1970s, and their use is burgeoning as technology has improved. Data reveals that these devices are beneficial for controlling noncompliant suspects while preventing serious injuries, and rarely has their use resulted in death. Much of the public controversy surrounding these weapons centers on when and how often officers use the devices.

This article discusses the findings of a study examining the effect of organizational policy changes within the use-of-force continuum on Taser usage in a single police agency. The policy change raised the level of suspect resistance required for electronic control weapon deployment from passive resistance to active physical resistance. Data from 890 use-of-force encounters during a two-year period were analyzed to determine if changes in organizational policy have affected use of this weapon, levels of suspect resistance, and injuries of officers and suspects. The findings support the following: after the policy change, the frequency of Taser use by officers decreased and the levels of suspect resistance encountered by officers increased. Likewise, the frequency of suspect injuries decreased and the number of officers injured in use-of-force encounters increased slightly. These results are valuable as empirical data for discussion and add to the growing literature on the use of electronic control weapons as a less-lethal use-of-force alternative.


The Problem Statement

The issue of police use of force remains a topic of intense debate and continued public scrutiny. Police officers are one of the most visible arms of government, and they are entrusted with substantial authority and discretion.1 They are the only members of society legally authorized to take life or inflict serious injury to preserve order and enforce the law.2 The public’s perception of law enforcement’s ability to control crime while maintaining high levels of accountably and ethical standards is often framed around the use of force by police. During the past few decades, several incidents of excessive use of police force have garnered local, national, and international media attention. These incidents have cast police in a negative light and have altered the public’s perception of police use-of-force judgment.

Police leaders have most often looked to technology to address public concerns resulting from police-citizen confrontations that require use of force. The technologies typically sought are less-lethal alternatives to the more traditional means of controlling suspects; these technologies include impact weapons or weaponless tactics.3 One of these alternatives is the electronic control device. Electronic control devices encompass a wide range of weapons that rely on electrical shock to incapacitate combative and or noncompliant suspects. These include stun guns, stun belts, electronic control weapons, and Tasers.4 These weapons are the latest developments in a succession of less-lethal products developed and employed by the police and the military.5

The use of electronic control devices by police has been the subject of considerable debate and scrutiny since their introduction as a less-lethal weapon in the late 1970s.6 This controversy has been revitalized with the introduction of a newer generation of weapons in the late 1990s. These weapons are more powerful and have been deployed extensively by police agencies across the United States and abroad.7 The use-of-force continuum is the mechanism that guides police use of force and establishes what level of resistance must be present before various use-of-force methods can be employed.8 The interpretation of what excessive force is in a given situation often is based on the placement of use-of-force methods on a particular agency’s use-of-force continuum (see table 1).

Table 1: Use-of-Force Continuum
Suspect resistanceOfficer use of force
1. No resistance1. Officer presence
2. Verbal noncompliance2. Verbal commands
3. Passive resistance3. Hands-on tactics, chemical spray
4. Active resistance4. Intermediate weapons: baton, Taser, strikes, nondeadly force
5. Aggressive resistance5. Intermediate weapons, intensified techniques, nondeadly force
6. Deadly-force resistance6. Deadly force
Adapted from the Orlando, Florida Police Department's Resistance and Response Continuum

In an attempt to mitigate public concerns and guide officers on proper electronic control weapon use, many agencies have changed their use policies based on the level of suspect resistance encountered. After the introduction of newer and more powerful electronic control devices, many agencies integrated their deployment into the use-of-force continuum at a level to be used when suspects were only passively resisting the actions of the officer.9 The use of electronic control weapons in these low-intensity situations led to considerable media attention and public controversy.

In response to this scrutiny and to mitigate citizen complaints, many police agencies increased the required level of resistance by suspects to warrant use of this device from passive resistance to active physical resistance (see table 2). To date, no research has been conducted to determine the effect this use-of-force policy change has had on Taser deployments.

Table 2: Levels of Resistance Defined
Passive ResistanceThe subject fails to obey verbal direction, preventing the officer from taking lawful action.
Active ResistanceThe subject’s actions are intended to facilitate an escape or prevent an arrest. The action is not likely to cause injury.
Aggressive ResistanceThe subject has battered or is about to batter an officer, and the subject’s action is likely to cause injury.
Deadly-Force ResistanceThe subject’s actions are likely to cause death or significant bodily harm to the officer or another person.
Adapted from the Orlando, Florida, Police Department’s Resistance and Response Continuum


A Brief History

Taser is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, named after Tom Swift of the popular American children’s adventure series of the 1920s and 1930s.10 Electronic control weapon technology has been used by law enforcement agencies since 1974.11 The device was invented by Jack Cover, a NASA scientist who had experimented with electricity as a nondeadly weapon during the 1960s. Cover discovered that immediate incapacitation almost always occurred with no other direct negative side effects when Tasers were applied to human beings in short duration.12

The newest generation of electronic control weapons has been modified significantly to address design flaws and to improve reliability and effectiveness.13 The latest models feature a nitrogen gas propulsion system that fires two darts from a maximum distance of 21 feet, at 200–220 feet per second. The probes impact and penetrate one-fourth of an inch into clothing or bare skin, delivering 10–20 pulses per second of 50,000 volts of electrical shock. The recipient feels a series of shocks, which causes an interruption of the recipient’s neuromuscular messages and causes muscle contractions.14 These shocks leave the recipient dazed and unable to either aggress or resist the actions of the deploying officer.

There is a limited body of research on the use and effects of electronic control devices. The majority of research focuses on their effectiveness and on how frequently they are deployed in use-of-force encounters.15 The available data on the use of electronic control devices by police suggest that their use is beneficial at controlling noncompliant suspects without inflicting serious injury, and rarely have their use resulted in death.16 A review of current literature supports the effectiveness of electronic control weapons as a less-lethal alternative, although there are no current studies that examine the effect that use-of-force organizational policy changes can have on their use.

Much of the public controversy surrounding electronic control devices focuses on when and how often officers should deploy them.17 Various studies have been conducted on this device’s use by police and its effectiveness as a less-lethal use-of-force method.18 To date, there are no studies that focus on organizational policy and how a change in electronic control device placement on the use-of-force continuum influences the weapon’s use and suspect injuries. Undoubtedly, this research has significant policy implications in the use of less-lethal alternatives by the police and subsequent political and media scrutiny.


Study Methodology

The Orlando Police Department (OPD), in Orlando, Florida, was the site selected for this research. OPD was chosen because of its size, the length of time its officers have been using Tasers, and the change in its policy regarding this weapon’s placement on its use-of-force continuum. The agency’s staffing as of 2005 was approximately 706 sworn police officers, or 3.2 officers per 1,000 residents. The city of Orlando occupies approximately 110 square miles in central Florida. The population in 2005 was 217,567 residents with a daily service population of approximately 320,000. Orlando experienced significant growth from 1996 to 2005 with the population increasing 17 percent, or by 44,445 new residents, during that period.19 Orlando is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, with 36 million people a year visiting the area’s theme parks and attractions.

Taser use-of-force data retrieved from defensive tactics forms during the identified study periods were examined. The OPD requires the completion of a defensive tactics form by the first-line supervisor after each electronic control device deployment by an officer. The content of the form is reviewed by multiple managers, and copies are sent to the Internal Affairs and Training sections. The use-of-force report form requires the supervisor to document the level of resistance offered by the suspect and the level of force used to compel the suspect into compliance.

During the two study periods, OPD officers recorded 890 use-of-Taser incidents. The policy change that increased the level of resistance that must be present to authorize deployment was made in June 2004. The change was made in an effort to mitigate the use of electronic control devices in low-intensity encounters. Moreover, the OPD reports that 93 percent of the 523 Taser deployments from June 2003 to June 2004 were used on suspects offering active resistance. The policy change raised the authorized level of resistance from passive resistance to active resistance. Effectively, this means that suspects must be actively resisting the actions of the officer—by pulling away or fleeing, not just passively resisting—for an electronic control device to be deployed. Use-of-force data from one year before and one year after the change in policy were examined to determine what effect, if any, the policy change had on the frequency of electronic control weapon use and suspect and officer injuries in use-of-force encounters (see figure 1).


Results of Current Study

An examination of use-of-force data reveals that after the policy change, which raised the level of resistance on the use-of-force continuum for deploying Tasers, the frequency of electronic control device use by Orlando officers decreased by 29 percent, from 523 to 367 deployments (see table 3).


Table 3: Taser Use
PretestPosttestChange
Taser Use  +/-%
Taser Deployments523367-29


Conversely, the police service indicators of calls for service and arrests increased while the total reported incidents of use of force decreased during the research periods. During the pretest period, OPD officers handled 337,470 calls for service; made 19,267 arrests; and used all types of authorized force in 707 incidents. This includes the use of pepper spray, tactical baton, and weaponless tactics such as strikes and takedowns. During the posttest period, OPD officers handled 383,567 calls for service; made 19,770 arrests; and used force in 572 encounters (see table 4).

Table 4: Total Police Activity
PretestPosttestChange
Police Activity +/-%
Calls for Service337,470383,567+13.6
Arrests19,26719,770+2.6
Total Uses of Force707572-19.1

Using the police service indicators in table 4 to answer the question of the effect of an organizational policy change on electronic control weapon use is warranted based on the fluctuation in the crime rate and accompanying police activity used to counter it during the analysis periods. An examination of Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data for Orlando during the periods of analysis reveals a 3 percent reduction in the index crime rate per 100,000 populations between 2003 and 2004. It is important to note that only the six months from June 2003 through December 2003 are included in the analysis period. The change in index crime rate between 2004 and 2005 indicates a 3.5 percent increase.20 The analysis period ended in June 2005. These data are three such measures of that activity and are used to demonstrate the overall increase in police activity during the study periods. The effect of this level of police activity must be considered when examining the effect of electronic control device use during the study periods.

During the pretest period, 523 Taser deployments were recorded in use-of-force encounters by officers. The number of electronic control device deployments during the posttest period was 367, indicating that the number of deployments dropped by 156 actual uses or 29 percent. It is interesting to note that the total number of use-of-force by officers also decreased by 135 incidents, or 19.1 percent, from 707 to 572 in the pretest and posttest periods. The data indicate the posttest decrease in electronic control weapon deployments parallels the posttest decrease in use-of-force incidents in this study.


Suspect Injuries

A certain frequency of injury to suspects is unavoidable given the nature of use-of-force encounters. Use-of-force policies attempt to mitigate these injuries by balancing the safety of officers who must protect themselves and the public with the well-being of suspects who resist or become combative. One of the principal concerns of both the police and the public is the reduction of injuries to suspects in use-of-force encounters. The policy change that is the focus of this study attempts to achieve this balance by altering the required level of suspect resistance required for electronic control device use on the use-of-force continuum.

Another significant issue examined in this study is the effect of use-of-force policy changes on the frequency of suspect injuries. It would seem intuitive that if the required level of suspect resistance increases, so should the frequency of injuries incurred by suspects. However, the frequency of injury to suspects after the policy change decreased by 31.5 percent. Analysis of the data indicates that the difference in the percentages of suspect injury in the pretest and posttest groups was not statistically significant when compared to the total sample. This finding supports that the policy change reduced the frequency of electronic control weapon use overall and also reduced the number of suspects injured (see table 5).


Table 5: Frequency of Suspect Injuries
Total Sample NumberPretest NumberPosttest NumberChange
Suspects Injured % % %+/%
No24327.313926.610428.3
Yes64772.738473.426371.7-31.5
Total890100.0523100.0367100.0


Officer Injuries

One of the primary concerns of police administrators is the safety of officers in use-of-force encounters. It would be expected that after the change in policy regarding placement of electronic control devices at a higher level on the use-of-force continuum, the number of injuries to officers would increase, since the organization is limiting the available options for dealing with potentially dangerous suspects. This issue is not only pertinent from a leadership perspective but also as a prudent business practice by reducing workers’ compensation claims and maintaining staffing levels.


The purpose of the policy change was to reduce electronic control weapon use in low-intensity or passive resistance encounters. The findings indicate that following the policy change, the number of officers injured increased by 12.5 percent (see table 6). While this number is not statistically significant, it does indicate an increase in the percentage of officers injured. It is important to note that when examined in light of the overall reduction in electronic control weapon use, this finding would seem to support that the policy did not adversely affect officer safety. Clearly, officers were involved in more violent encounters in the posttest group and therefore were at more risk for injury. These findings demonstrate that the policy did achieve the desired result of mitigating electronic control device use and preserving the safety of officers and suspects in use-of-force encounters.

Table 6: Frequency of Officer Injuries
Total Sample NumberPretest NumberPosttest NumberChange
Officers Injured % % %+/%
No83994.349995.434092.6
Yes515.7244.6277.4+12.5
Total890100.0523100.0367100.0


Levels of Suspect Resistance

Overall, the levels of suspect resistance encountered by officers after the policy change increased. This is to be expected, given the nature of the policy change. However, some of the use-of-force data indicate that in the active resistance category, which is the initial level of resistance when electronic control weapon deployment would be authorized, the levels of suspect resistance decreased by 33 percent. This would seem to indicate reduced levels of force on the lower end of the use-of-force continuum. Conversely, in the higher use-of-force categories, resistance levels increased. In the aggressive resistance category, suspect resistance increased by 21 percent, and in the deadly force category, the level of resistance increased by 300 percent (see table 7). These findings indicate higher levels of resistance in the more violent and dangerous categories of encounters after the policy changed. This supports that as use-of-force incidents develop, resistance levels noticeably increase once suspects escalate beyond passively resisting the actions of the officer and initiate active or aggressive physical resistance.

Table 7: Levels of Suspect Resistance
 Total Sample NumberPretest NumberPosttest NumberChange
Passive Resistance495.2387.382.2-78.9
Active Resistance7138042781.628677.9-33
Aggressive Resistance12614.25710.96918.8+21
Deadly Force50.610.241.1+300
Total890100.0523100.0367100.0 

Note: An examination of data on the level of suspect resistance reveals that in eight incidents in the posttest group (after the change in policy), suspects were resisting at a passive level of resistance when a Taser was deployed. This would seem to indicate that the use of electronic control devices in these incidents violated the agency policy. The incident data reveal that seven of the eight events occurred within four weeks of the policy change. This may indicate that some officers had not yet adjusted to the policy change or that a training issue could be to blame.


Implications for Police Policy Makers

The use-of-force continuum and the policies that guide its use are the mechanisms used by many police agencies to manage use-of-force encounters.21 The policies that guide electronic control weapon use and, more specifically, the use-of-force continuum attempt to balance the competing values of the safety of the public, including suspects, and the safety of police officers. This study reveals four key findings:

  1. Taser use and use-of-force incidents declined after the policy change, while police service indicators increased.

  2. Injuries to suspects slightly decreased after the policy change.

  3. Injuries to officers slightly increased after the policy change.

  4. The level of suspect resistance increased after the policy change.

These findings indicate that, by changing the placement of electronic control devices on the use-of-force continuum, the balance of safety for suspects and officers was essentially unchanged. In essence, the policy change had no statistically significant effect on the frequency of injuries to either suspects or officers. This finding is important for police administrators who may be facing similar policy decisions related to electronic control weapon use or any police use-of-force issue. These findings support that, if properly structured and implemented, organizational policies can be effective at mitigating electronic control device use without sacrificing the safety of the public, including suspects or police officers. Police officers are the front line of defense in an increasingly violent and changing world. The use of force by police remains a topic of debate and public scrutiny. Police leaders must constantly reevaluate and examine use-of-force policies and practices to meet the needs of the public and maintain the highest ethical and professional standards. Research into the implications and the effects of use-of-force policies provides the background for empirically based decisions that instill public confidence in the police and balance the safety of the public and the police officers. ♦

Notes:

1Egon Bittner, The Functions of the Police in Modern Society: A Review of Background Factors, Current Practices, and Possible Role Models (Chevy Chase, Md.: National Institute of Mental Health, Center for Studies of Crime and Delinquency, 1970).
2Albert J. Reiss Jr., The Police and the Public (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971).
3Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris, The Role of Police in American Society: A Documentary History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999).
4James M. Cronin and Joshua A. Ederheimer, Conducted Energy Devices: Development of Standards for Consistency and Guidance (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and Police Executive Research Forum, 2006), http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/RIC/Publications/e1206144_ced.pdf (accessed August 15, 2010).
5Tom McEwen, “Policies on Less-Than-Lethal Force in Law Enforcement Agencies,” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 20, no. 1 (1997): 39–59.
6IACP National Law Enforcement Policy Center, Electronic Control Weapons: Concepts and Issues Paper (Alexandria, Va., December 2004). An updated version of this policy is available through the National Law Enforcement Policy Center http://www.theiacp.org/PublicationsGuides/ModelPolicy/tabid/135/Default.aspx.
7“PERF Conducted Energy Devices and Training Guidelines for Consideration,” Police Executive Research Forum (October 25, 2005), http://www.policeforum.org/upload/perf-ced-Guidelines-Updated-10-25-05%5B1%5D_715866088_1230200514040.pdf (accessed on June 24, 2006).
8Greg Conner, “Use of Force Continuum: Phase II,” Law and Order 3 (1991): 30–32.
9“PERF Conducted Energy Devices,” Police Executive Research Forum.
10IACP, Electronic Control Weapons.
11United States Government Accountability Office, Taser Weapons: Use of Tasers by Selected Law Enforcement Agencies, report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, Committee on Government Reform, House of Representatives, GAO-05-464, 109th Cong., 1st sess., May 2005, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05464.pdf (accessed August 15, 2010).
12Eugene Nielson, “The Advanced Taser: Taser International Takes the Taser to a Higher Level,” Law and Order 49, no. 5 (2001): 57–62.
13United States Government Accountability Office, Taser Weapons.
14Kenneth Vogel, “Tasertron Tactics,” Law and Order 46, no. 8 (1998): 49–52.
15United States Government Accountability Office, Taser Weapons.
16Dennis K. McBride and Natalie B. Tedder, Efficacy and Safety of Electrical Stun Devices (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, 2005), http://www.potomacinstitute.org/images/stun_devices_report_final.pdf (accessed August 15, 2010).
17USA: Excessive and Lethal Force? Amnesty International’s Concerns about Deaths and Ill-Treatment Involving Police Use of Tasers (Amnesty International, November 30, 2004), http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/139/2004/en/4682af8d-d581-11dd-bb24-1fb85fe8fa05/amr511392004en.pdf (accessed on June 24, 2006).
18Steve Hougland, Charlie Mesloh, and Mark Henych, “Use of Force, Civil Litigation, and the Taser,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 74 (2005): 24; Greg Meyer, “Non-Lethal Weapons vs. Conventional Police Tactics: Assessing Injuries and Liabilities,” The Police Chief 59, no. 8 (August 1992): 10–18; Michael D. White and Justin Ready, “The Taser as a Less Lethal Force Alternative: Findings on Use and Effectiveness in a Large Metropolitan Police Agency,” Police Quarterly 10 (June 2007): 170–191.
19Duke Deese, research and training specialist, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, personal communication with author, August 17, 2010.
20“Florida Uniform Crime Report, County and Municipal Offense Data, January—December 2005,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement, http://www.fdle.state.fl.us/Content/getdoc/e429dee2-f22b-4e25-bbab-0fd13e2a6b2b/Statewide-Ratios.aspx (accessed on November 28, 2007).
21William Terrill, Police Coercion: Application of the Force Continuum (New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2001).


Please cite as:

Michael E. Miller, "Taser Use and the Use-of-Force Continuum: Examining the Effect of Policy Change," The Police Chief 77 (September 2010): 72–76, http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/naylor/CPIM0910/index.php#/72 (insert access date).


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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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