CNN reported late last month that the manufacturer of Taser stun guns was hoping to "minimize controversy" by advising the nation's law-enforcement agencies "to avoid hitting suspects in the chest." If you are at all familiar with the basic principles of marksmanship, you know that under stress, the surest target on the human body is the center of mass – in other words, the chest. Now, as reported by CNN, Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle admits that the Taser "is not risk free." Avoiding the chest provides what Tuttle terms "enhanced risk management."
Miscreant Andrew Meyer, the activist who famously shouted, "Don't tase me, bro" when he was subdued by law-enforcement officers during an appearance by Sen. John Kerry in Gainesville, Fla., brought the Taser to national awareness through his infamous public shocking. If you don't know, Tasers and "stun guns" are weapons that use electricity to incapacitate a human being. Some impressive number of volts are pumped out by the device at low wattage – a typical "stun gun" sold through self-defense mail order catalogs is a handheld transformer that runs on a nine-volt battery – and this is, for most people, very, very unpleasant.
The problem is that, for a very few, a stun gun or a Taser (which can shoot darts connected to wires, delivering its electrical payload at a distance) can prove fatal. Jaime Holguin reported in CBS News back in 2004 that deaths from stun guns or Tasers were on the rise. Especially in those who have pre-existing medical conditions, the sudden application of electricity to their bodies can result in death. This is exactly what using Tasers is supposed to prevent – the death of a suspect who will not comply voluntarily, someone who must be forced to submit to arrest.
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For decades, the nation's law-enforcement agencies, as well as manufacturers supplying them, have sought ways to subdue violent suspects in a kinder, gentler manner. This gave rise to law-enforcement tools once termed "nonlethal," then "less than lethal," and finally "less lethal." If that sounds like semantic drift to you, you're not alone; anyone with any sense understands that in our increasingly litigious society, even the makers of weapons have started slapping warning labels on their products. Many is the pistol or revolver sold today that has large lettering engraved or emblazoned on it, to the effect of, "Read instruction manual before use."
In everything from riot control to the apprehension of violent subjects who may be chemically altered, American law enforcement – and the bureaucrats and union leaders behind them, who are in turn tormented by legions of lawyers only too happy to sue police departments for daring to apprehend their criminal clients – has increasingly sought to find ways of subduing human beings without seriously harming them. While this is a laudable goal, it is fundamentally misdirected. This is because there is no violent act that does not carry with it inherent risk. Engaging in violence invariably demands that some form of physical force be brought to bear to pre-empt or terminate that violence. There is no means of circumventing physical violence that does not endanger the well-being of the violent individual to some degree.
An excellent example of this is the fact that the Los Angeles police who beat Rodney King were attempting to subdue an extraordinarily violent subject who had shrugged off other efforts to subdue him. As they were forbidden to apply choke holds, the only alternative to shooting Rodney King dead was to club him down. Rodney survived that encounter (and went on to add to his criminal record), but the lessons of "less lethal" law-enforcement techniques weren't learned then any more than they have been since.
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Our law-enforcement agencies are keenly aware of the limitations of these "less lethal" tools – and the risks of a lethal outcome these weapons nevertheless pose – even as they continue to apply them. In 2006, PoliceOne.com reported that "the vast majority of police agencies nationwide are finally fielding some type of impact projectile." These are "bullets" or "bean bags" fired from shotguns or other delivery tools that hit someone at a distance – but hit them less hard than actual bullets would, presumably sparing them from being killed. The report goes on to decry a lack of training in shot placement – the very issue Taser International raises with its warning concerning shocks to the chest area.
Even commonly used pepper spray, an irritant fielded by many law-enforcement agencies to subdue uncooperative or violent suspects, can result in death. Last summer, an inmate in Lee County, Fla., died after he was restrained and pepper-sprayed. "The pepper spray sent him into shock, which caused his heart to fail," the article reports. You can imagine that anyone with, say, breathing difficulties or a heart condition might react badly to being sprayed with oleoresin capsicum, the "OC" in OC spray (pepper spray).
What all of these "less lethal" tools have in common is that they attempt to equate technology with magic. The public generally misunderstands these tools, believing them to be safe (because technology has been introduced to prevent police from being forced to shoot people). A smaller portion of the public believes, more wrongly, that these tools are deadly and their use is some sort of conspiracy on the part of heartless, bloodthirsty cops to kill, wholesale, an underclass of poor, misunderstood criminal suspects.
What manufacturers of these "less lethal" technologies are finally admitting, and what we as a citizenry must acknowledge, is that there is no use of force that is not potentially fatal. When you resist law-enforcement officials, you do so at your peril. When a police officer delivers force to a subject, he must know that he does so at the risk of that individual's harm, regardless of the technology employed.