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by Peter Moskos

April 8, 2008

T[aser] is for Torture

More good discussion from the comments of marginal revolution.

I'll call this: Ask Officer Pete!

Q: Peter, I have an issue with you comments about police use of force. Your argument that the use of "muscle," physical strength and holds, will lead to less excessive force issues in contrast to Tasers or other less lethal uses of force, needs to be substantiated. Officers who go over the line, in my experience prefer to use physical strength and intimidation. It gives them a better "high;" that feeling of control and power. It has been my experience with the modern Tasers, ... that trained Officers are more likely to stay within the bounds of Departmental policy and the Law. Additionally, do we as a society want to expose our law enforcement officers to MORE danger by not allowing them the advantage of distance? Officers and suspects are less likely to be injured if there is no physical force used. This has multiple "good" effects.

A: You very well might be right. What you say is certainly the modern and progressive thinking of the day. But I still disagree. I'm not talking about officers who want to use excessive force. I'm not talking about abuse by "bad" officers. I'm talking about torture by otherwise "good" officers.

I have three main problems with Tasers: 1) they’re used too readily, 2) the pain they cause isn’t geared toward the compliance I want, and 3) people die.

Nine times out of ten officers exercise more restraint that allowed by departmental policy and law (See Dave Klinger's book Into the Kill Zone for lots of examples of this). In Baltimore I didn't have a Taser, but the use-of-force guidelines for Tasers and mace (actually pepper spray) is generally the same--for compliance. That's too low a bar.

If I followed departmental policy, I could have maced about 3 people a shift. Instead, I maced one person in 14 months. Mace has a natural check and balance: it goes everywhere. No officer quick with the mace will be popular in the department for long.

Physical force can often be done without too much pain. And the pain caused is directly proportional to your resistance. For instance, I need you to put your hands behind your back. I use force. Force isn't the same as pain. It might hurt if you fight it. But as soon as you stop resisting, any pain is over.

Officers use Tasers quicker than they otherwise would apply hands-on force. "Comply or I Taze you." You don't comply so I Taze. Clean and legal. But wrong because it's not necessary. Departmental regulation be damned! It’s too easy to press a button.

We're talking about pain compliance... hurting somebody. Tasers cause pain as punishment. That's not right. We shouldn’t pretend that causing pain is clean process. It never is.

Force is part of the police job. No suspect puts handcuffs on himself.

Without a Taser, I just say "Comply." You don't. So I keep talking to you, cajoling you, ordering you, threatening you. But the point is I'll work harder trying to convince you to comply if my only alternative is hands-on force. Officers *should* be reluctant to use force. You don't want to use physical force because there is some danger... and also you break a sweat--something you always want to avoid while wearing body armor.

When I do use hands-on force, at least my force is geared toward getting you to do what I want (like getting your arms behind your back so I can cuff you). With a Taser, it's just about disabling pain. That's torture. And consider this, it's not easy to follow instructions after being in the greatest pain of your life. So you get tazed again.

I worked in a rough district. I want to police to be safe. But the danger police face isn't really from officers working to put handcuffs on one suspect or get that suspect out of a car. That's just part of the job.

Besides, I trusted my squadmates because I knew they could handle themselves in a fight. I don't care how hand-off people try and make policing in theory and in the academy, on the street, it's hands-on. I want to work with officers who aren't afraid to use their hands. Reluctant, yes. But afraid, no.

And oh yeah, Tasers kill people.


PCM said...

A police officer emailed me:

I am a NYC police Sergeant.
You gave the best explanation against the use of Tasers I have read. We only disagree in degree. NYPD as you know has a rule that only Sergeants use Tasers. Not every cop has one. I think that is wise.

Tasers are Less Lethal and in some cases people die from mace.

PCM said...

I like the idea of sergeants with Tasers. I think that's a good solution. They do have a role. And yes, they are less lethal. I think too many police treat them as less-than-lethal.