Tasers in the Crosshairs
The death of an 18-year-old high school graduate after University of Cincinnati police used a Taser on him is likely to reopen an intense debate on whether or how the weapons should be allowed on college campuses. Yet since the last time that debate was had – following high-profile incidents at the University of California at Los Angeles and University of Florida in 2006 and 2007, respectively – it seems that not much has changed.
After investigating the incidents, those two universities, to be sure, revisited their own police department policies regarding how and when Tasers should be used. Both determined their officers acted appropriately, but UCLA issued new guidelines allowing Taser use only on “violent subjects,” and Florida created a more formal, step-by-step confrontation approach that makes the weapons more of a last resort at public events.
At the macro level, perhaps because the weapons are rarely used, nothing really changed.
“I’m not sure if it’s any different,” said Anne P. Glavin, president-elect of the International Association of College Law Enforcement Administrators and chief of police and director of public services at California State University at Northridge. “It’s considered in the profession to be a so-called less-lethal weapon. And the notion behind that is it provides an alternative to using deadly force.”
But at the institutional level, policies have slowly have become less vague and less broad than they used to be, said Camelia Naguib, deputy director of the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC).
“I think those incidents and a number of others [not at colleges] have really changed the way people are looking at policies,” Naguib said. “They encouraged departments to more carefully look at circumstances under which use of Tasers is appropriate.” There have been myriad reports on Taser deaths and safety, though not specifically in higher education. Even Taser International, the company that creates the original product, has itself released more safety guidelines over the years. For instance, officers now know to avoid aiming the weapon at a person’s chest to reduce the risk of cardiac arrest.
Florida’s new “tiered approach” mandates additional steps to subdue a disruptive individual before the police intervene. Linda Stump, director of the university’s police department, said she didn’t know whether more informal contact with the person before the officers approached would have altered the outcome of the notorious “Don’t Tase me, bro” incident, in which officers forcibly removed a student from the microphone during a John Kerry speech. But under the new system, someone from the venue’s staff would have approached the student first and asked him, non-forcibly, to leave, rather than the initial response being police escorts – and ultimately, use of a Taser when the student resisted their grasp. (That was, of course, after he uttered the quote that launched a thousand YouTube videos.)
At UCLA, police confronted an Iranian-American student who refused to show identification in the library. After handcuffing him, officers shocked him multiple times with a Taser, even when he appeared handcuffed and subdued, and critics complained about the use of force, though at the time the UCLA police department’s policy allowed for Taser use for “pain compliance against passive resisters.” Many of those angry about the use of a Taser suggested that the student's ethnicity influenced the way he was handled -- a charge denied by UCLA.
Eight months later, PARC concluded an outside investigation of the incident with a report recommending that UCLA make a number of changes to its use of force and Taser policies to align them with best practices. (Naguib said the best practices have not changed significantly since the recommendations were made, but today PARC would advise against pointing the Taser at the chest. Cincinnati’s policy says police should aim for the back; the second-best option is the front torso, but officers should avoid the head and neck. The policy does not mention the chest, and police have not released details about where Everette Howard, the student who died at Cincinnati, was hit.)
The report does not, however, suggest that UCLA or other institutions abandon the Taser. “Mindful of the risk of injury or death, we nonetheless conclude that the Taser’s benefits outweigh those risks as long as policies for use of this instrumentality are narrowly tailored and properly restrictive.”
An initial review has found the Cincinnati police followed proper procedure, but the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is now conducting its own review. (The university released some records to Cincinnati.com, which said Howard “appeared to be very angry and agitated but not at anyone in particular,” and that an officer could not understand what he was saying.)
Judging by PARC standards, Cincinnati police acted appropriately by reportedly warning Howard that the Taser could be deployed if he continued to advance toward them. The warning, which should always be issued when an officer is not in imminent danger, is an important step that had been removed from UCLA’s rules when it revised its policy prior to the incident in the library, but has since been added back.
Best practices, PARC said, restrict Taser use to “violent, actively aggressive or imminently violent subjects, currently engaged in physical or active resistance, where the suspect has been given a warning and a reasonable opportunity to comply, and where milder uses of force could be reasonably judged as likely ineffective.” Departments should also define those states of violence or aggression, so that when officers have to make snap judgments, they have something clear-cut to base them on, the report said.
Best practices go even further in making predetermined responses aligned with different levels of aggression. A “force options” or “force continuum” system provides “an explicit range of appropriate responses for each level of subject resistance or threat,” PARC says.
Cincinnati’s policy does contain such a feature, but whether the officers used it is less clear.
Local media reported that Cincinnati police said Howard “appeared agitated, angry, and had balled fists” while approaching officers, who had arrived at the residence hall after a 911 call reported an assault. Howard allegedly did not back off when they asked him to. Based on definitions from PARC and the Police Executive Research Forum, that would indicate either “passive or mild resistance” or “active physical resistance,” if Howard could have defeated or significantly impeded an attempt to take him into custody. Based on Cincinnati’s own policy, Howard’s actions would fall under “Uncooperative: refusing to comply with commands.” The appropriate officer response would be to exercise “Restraint Techniques” such as verbal commands or balance displacement, according to the policy; while Howard reportedly did not respond to verbal commands, Tasers are not listed as appropriate responses until the suspect’s behavior escalates to “Resisting Officer”: actions such as wrestling with an officer or pulling away.
“The central component of any constitutional use force policy is that officers only use the level of force that is reasonably necessary to safely resolve any given situation, taking into consideration the totality of the circumstances, including the suspect’s actions, the risk of death or injury to officers and others, and the availability and efficacy of lesser force options,” the report reads. Force continuums take table or chart form to help officers better visualize the appropriate action and when they might need to escalate or de-escalate their responses.
Because multiple shocks have been correlated with increased likelihood of death, PARC says repeated use of the Taser should be discouraged. But if officers must fire more than once, they should do so each time only after reassessing the situation and determining that the subject still poses a threat significant enough to fire again. Police stunned Howard once before he went into cardiac arrest. The coroner’s office later announced Howard had been struck by a Taser and hospitalized, after he fell ill and became combative, once before, in 2010.
“In sum, cumulative research and the experience of law enforcement agencies that equip their officers with Tasers tends to suggest that the use of the Taser generally carries few health risks to subjects,” the report concludes. “Indeed, many departments have found that it actually increases overall safety to subjects by reducing or making the use of injurious or deadly force less likely.
“Nonetheless, Tasers are not considered – by research, most law enforcement agencies or departments, and even Taser International – entirely risk-free. As such, departments should take care to monitor usage and to ensure that its use is restricted to those situations when it is the most appropriate force option.”