Nearly 10,000 police forces across the United States have begun equipping officers with Tasers in recent years. Although these weapons supposedly offer a non-lethal alternative to conventional firearms, officers seem to be more likely to discharge their Tasers because the results are generally less drastic. While Taser discharge is typically not as harmful as a gunshot, the body spasms that often occur from the 50,000 volts of electricity entering the body can cause a person to fall and get injured. The problem is not the fall or loss of balance itself, but rather an individual’s inability to regain balance or break the fall as he is being tased. The inability to maintain balance may cause scrapes, cuts, fractures and sometimes even broken bones as the Taser victim hits the ground. The increase in Taser discharge calls into question whether police officers are exercising necessary caution before using their weapons.
While police officers often find themselves in difficult situations that require quick decision-making, certain cases of Taser discharge seem completely unnecessary. For example, a Texas police officer tased a student as he attempted to break up a fight last November. As a result of the officer’s use of the stun gun, the student fell and hit his head, which resulted in severe hemorrhaging. In another case, a legal complaint in North Carolina cites an officer allegedly discharging his Taser three times on a disabled 15-year-old, which caused punctured lungs.
The use of Tasers on certain high school and college campuses has fueled a debate in which protesters argue vehemently for the prohibition of Tasers on school campuses. As demonstrated by the Texas and North Carolina cases, discharge can cause grave injury to students. Given the injuries that can result from Taser discharge, equipping officers with Tasers on school campuses reflects poor judgment by police forces. Rather than creating a safer community that enables officers to protect students, providing these weapons to officers can make campuses more dangerous.
Although unexpected catastrophes such as shootings can occur on campuses, Tasers cannot realistically dispel these violent threats successfully. While the use of a Taser can potentially diffuse tense situations, the frequency with which officers discharge the weapons can be dangerous. Students deserve a safe learning environment and accepting Tasers or similar weapons for use on school property jeopardizes this campus safety. Prohibiting Tasers on college campuses is the best option for preventing unnecessary discharge.
Regardless of whether faulty discharges take place on the streets or on high school and college campuses, officers should take responsibility for faulty discharges and face disciplinary action when they occur. However, some recent cases point to flaws in the prosecution of police officers who act outside their jurisdiction. For example, a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot and killed Oscar Grant while arresting him in 2009. After claiming that he confused his gun with his Taser, the officer initially received a sentence of two years for involuntary manslaughter. Ultimately, the officer only served 11 months of this sentence before being released.
While judges and juries should consider the difficulty of a police officer’s position when making a verdict and sentencing the defendant, they should not absolve officers from prosecution when unnecessary discharges endanger civilians. Although some officers convicted of serious misconduct actually do receive significant sentences, Grant’s case speaks to disturbing shortcomings in the judicial system’s prosecution of police officers. Instead of holding the Bay Area Rapid Transit officer — who was supposed to be trained to serve and protect the public — accountable for the severity of his actions, he was given a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. This precedent could lead to more irresponsible actions from police officers. Cases involving the prosecution of officers often result in monetary settlements granted to victims of police brutality rather than systemic changes for police training that demonstrate the repercussions of misuse of power, which can further perpetuate abused authority.
Police forces exist to enforce laws and protect citizens from individuals who violate laws and thereby endanger others. Responsibility accompanies these duties. When these trusted officers use potentially lethal devices irresponsibly — whether Tasers, guns or other weapons — they pose a risk to the general public. Not all cases of misuse of authority present themselves clearly, but in cases where officers blatantly abuse their power, justice should prevail. When police officers themselves, in or out of uniform, cease to protect justice and instead violate the rights of others, they must bear the consequences of their actions as any other citizen would.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 16 print edition. Dan Moritz-Rabson is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]