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TASER Technology and Police Officers’ Understanding and Use of Force


Michael Sierra-Arévalo
Rutgers University-Newark

The TASER--a weapon that uses electric current to incapacitate a subject by causing complete neuromuscular incapacitation--is ubiquitous among U.S. police officers. Spurred by pressure to reduce the lethality of police force, this force technology it is now used by more than 17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Proponents of TASERs are quick to point out that research shows that most TASER deployments do not result in serious injury or death, and that TASERs provide officers with a useful, less-than-lethal alternative to their firearms. TASER critics, in turn, emphasize that even if TASERs are rarely lethal, 50,000 volts cause excruciating pain, fear, and psychological distress. They further emphasize that the TASER, like any weapon, can still be misused by police officers.

 
Though a large body of research examines police force, little is known about how officers make their use-of-force decisions in light of this new, less-than-lethal technology. In my article, TASER Technology and Police Officers’ Understanding and Use of Force, I draw on ethnographic observations of officers in three U.S. cities--Elmont (EPD), West River (WPD), and Sunshine (SPD)-- to describe how officers incorporate the TASER into how they think about and deploy coercive force. 

My analysis highlights three features of contemporary officers’ TASER-use. First, officers understand and use the TASER as a mutually safety-enhancing technology. Second, the TASER is a useful alternative to officers’ firearms in “suicide by cop” encounters with those suffering from mental illness. Finally, though the TASER has decided benefits, officers’ understanding of the TASER as a safety-enhancing technology can combine with young officers’ inexperience to result in the use of excessive force.

These findings highlight that though technological advancement provides legitimate benefits, it is a grave mistake to assume that less-than-lethal technology will solve the persistent problem of excessive police force. Indeed, it is precisely the safety-enhancing qualities of the TASER which contribute to the use of this technology in some instances of excessive force. Without addressing the broader structural inequalities that bring police into contact with the poor and mentally ill in the first place, excessive police force--even if less-than-lethal--will continue to be disproportionately concentrated in our most marginal communities.

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