Police Tasers: excessive force or necessary tool?
A crop of legal cases across the US raise concerns over the use of electric stun guns in routine police stops.
From isolated cases across the country, a debate is emerging over the use of electric stun guns as a "pain compliance" device by law enforcement.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At issue isn't whether police can use the weapon, known as a Taser, to protect themselves from dangerous suspects or to prevent a criminal from escaping. That is its designed purpose. Instead, the question is to what extent police may use a stun gun against someone who is not actively resisting arrest but who is passively refusing to obey a police command.
To some officers, such refusal is a form of resisting arrest and constitutes grounds to shoot 50,000 volts of electricity into that person's body in five-second bursts. When a person is tased, the central nervous system is overridden and the person experiences a seizure accompanied by intense pain.
Such tactics would be unconstitutional in a police interrogation room.
By contrast, during an arrest or roadside traffic stop, there are no clear standards for when police use of a stun gun for "pain compliance" might violate Fourth Amendment protections.
Officials at UCLA recently agreed to pay a student $220,000 to drop a lawsuit against the university in connection with a November 2006 incident in which the student was repeatedly tased after refusing a police order to leave the school library.
Last week, the US Supreme Court declined to take up the case of a handcuffed Florida motorist who was tased three times because he disobeyed a deputy sheriff's command to stand up and walk to a patrol car.
Given the proliferation of police stun guns, the issue is expected come up with increasing frequency across the country, according to civil libertarians.
A controversial alternative to guns
Developed in the 1990s, stun guns have helped reduce injuries to both police officers and suspects by offering officers a safer alternative to a firearm or a night stick.
Today there are more than 375,000 stun guns being used at 13,400 law enforcement and military organizations in 44 countries, according to Taser International, the manufacturer of the leading brand of stun gun.
But stun guns have come under increasing scrutiny. According to Amnesty International, more than 300 individuals have died after stun gun encounters in the US in the past nine years. And even their nonlethal use has been controversial.
In September 2007, campus police at the University of Florida used a stun gun to neutralize a disruptive student at a John Kerry speech. The student's plea, "Don't tase me, bro," became a popular tee shirt slogan.
In the case of the Florida driver, the Supreme Court justices offered no explanation for their decision not to hear his case. The move lets stand a federal appeals court decision that found the deputy's actions reasonable and justified.
"I hope [law enforcement officials] don't see this as open season to tase anyone who doesn't do exactly what they are told," says Tallahassee lawyer John Jolly, who successfully represented the deputy in the Florida case.