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Use of Electrical Weapons in Law Enforcement

Posted by Mark Kroll on May 23, 2016 at 12:21 PM

Our guest on the latest episode of PRIMA Podcasts is Dr. Mark Kroll, an adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota and California Polytechnic University. Dr. Kroll is the former chief technology officer and senior vice president of St. Jude Medical Inc. His primary area of research is the effects of electricity on the human body.

What do electrical weapons do and when are they used?

Dr. Kroll notes that most people refer to electrical weapons as “Tasers” because that is the dominant brand, but "electrical weapons" is the more formal and accurate term. These weapons work by delivering a mild shock with finely-tuned pulses to control muscles. They are generally used by law enforcement officers to stop aggression or resistance in a suspect. He explains that these devices significantly remove stresses and risks of injury associated with other uses of force like baton strikes and wrestling.

The protocols for electrical weapons are numerous and varied due to their rapid adoption by law enforcement agencies. When they are allowed to be used varies based on the force continuum at different agencies – they could be placed right above verbal commands, or all the way up near lethal force. There is currently no single standard on the usage of electrical weapons as the legal implications and best practices of these devices are still in development.

Reduced rate of injury and death

The Department of Justice has sponsored numerous studies on the use of electrical weapons. These studies have shown that suspect injuries, such as bruising and broken bones, have been reduced by about two-thirds compared to pepper spray, batons and wrestling. This has in turn led to a reduction in lawsuit settlements, litigation, and the reduction of officer injuries by 40% to 70%, thereby reducing workers' compensation claims.

The use of electrical weapons has also reduced fatal officer shootings by about two-thirds. Dr. Kroll emphasizes that this reduction occurs only at agencies where officers are allowed to use the devices at their discretion. He emphasizes that at agencies that do not permit the use of electrical weapons until there is active resistance or aggression, studies could not effectively demonstrate a reduction in shootings. This may be due to the fact that an officer needs time and distance to use an electrical weapon effectively, and when faced with active resistance or aggression, may be more likely to use a firearm instead.

Risks associated with electrical weapons

Muscle lock-up leading to a fatal fall. This commonly occurs if the subject is on an elevated surface or running on pavement. There have been only 16 such cases reported worldwide.

Fires.  If a suspect has doused himself in gasoline, the spark from the electrical weapon can ignite the fumes and cause the suspect to burn to death. There have been only 3 of 4 fatal fires reported worldwide.

Single-eye blindness. There have been 6 cases reported worldwide for this non-fatal injury.

Reducing myths and misunderstandings

Dr. Kroll explains that, while the public fears electrocution to be a risk associated with electrical weapons, this does not appear to be possible because the weapons adhere to the same guidelines as electric fences.

He also points out that the average person has no real benchmark to know the difference between fatal and non-fatal shock. And while an electrical weapon can generate an arc of up to 50,000 volts to penetrate clothing, this isn't enough to go into the body. The actual pulse voltage is 600 volts, and the weapon delivers short pulses at 18 volts per second, with the average voltage at 1.14 – less than that from an AA battery.

As far as legal implications over misuse, as with any weapon, Dr. Kroll notes that misuse is markedly reduced with electrical weapons because all information regarding their usage is stored inside the device, as opposed to baton strikes or pepper spray. He underscores the importance of educating the public, local judiciary, government officials and media on statistics for electrical weapons and how they work in order to dispel misconceptions and misunderstandings.