Tasers: To Use or Not?

To Taser, or Not to Taser? That is The Question

By Ken K. Gourdin

According to recent coverage of the case by The Salt Lake Tribune, a settlement recently was reached with the family of Brian Cardall, who sued the southern Utah city of Hurricane and its police force after a Hurricane officer deployed a Taser twice on Cardall when Cardall failed to obey the officers’ commands even though Cardall was unarmed, unclothed, and in the midst of a bipolar episode.[1]  The officer deployed the Taser within two minutes after arriving on the scene, even though Cardall’s wife, who called 911, had notified dispatchers that Cardall had taken anti-bipolar medication and was waiting the several minutes required for it to take effect.  Tasers use barbs (which usually are connected to wires), and through which high-voltage shocks are delivered to noncompliant subjects in order to decrease subjects’ resistance by causing temporary loss of muscle control.

I recently wrote an op-ed about the officer’s response to the Cardall incident which was published in the January 21, 2013 edition of southern Utah’s The St. George Daily Spectrum.[2]  I pointed out that while Tasers often are an effective tool for law enforcement officers in their efforts to secure compliance, officers should not be too quick to resort to them when other options are available to them.  They should only be used when attempts to negotiate and to reason with subjects fail (or when it is not feasible to make such attempts).  Perhaps Tasers have given some officers a false sense of security because they (despite the fact that Tasers have resulted in death on rare occasions) are considered less-than-lethal.  When the need to react is not immediate, officers should gather as much input as possible using their eyes, their ears, their voice, and their brain before responding to such situations, and should avoid resorting to weapons of any kind whenever possible.

Although I did not make this point in the Spectrum op-ed, it should be pointed out that if officers are too quick to resort to force (even to so-called “less-than-lethal” force) in response to incidents such as Cardall’s, it will decrease the likelihood that they will be summoned at all.  If law enforcement doesn’t respond, the likelihood of a response by medical first-responders also is reduced, since medics don’t usually respond until after threats to their lives and personal safety have been neutralized, and since law enforcement officers are the ones best equipped to neutralize such threats.

Another case in which Tasers were deployed multiple times in an attempt to subdue someone suffering from an altered mental status was reported in The Salt Lake Tribune January 24, 2013.  In that case, Logan P.D. officers responded to a report of a man later identified as 49-year-old Bruce Neil Thomson.[3]  Thomson reportedly was yelling at Satan.  While Tribune coverage as of this date has not been explicit regarding this point, coverage of this incident seems to indicate that officers made more of an attempt than was made in the Cardall case to reason with Thomson.  When that attempt failed, an officer deployed a Taser in an effort to subdue him.  Thomson died several hours later after a hospital security officer also employed a Taser on him after he again became unruly.

As is often the case among those who comment on Tribune coverage of such incidents, several commenters were critical, not of the hospital security guard who employed the second Taser which apparently led to Thomson’s death, but rather of the Logan police officer who first used a Taser on him.  Logic and reading comprehension skills often are in short supply among critics of law enforcement in general; and it has been my experience that this is especially true of critics who tend to inhabit this particular corner of cyberspace.  It is no accident that their comments are a major source of inspiration for work that has appeared both on this blog and in print.  My response to their criticism of officers’ actions in the Thomson case is as follows (it was posted in both locations today):

Yes, Mr. Thomson’s death is a tragedy. Yes, his loss will be keenly felt by his friends and family. That said, it sounds to me, based even on what little information is available from the article, that officers would have been perfectly justified even in using lethal force, let alone in using less-than-lethal force, against Mr. Thomson.

If someone explicitly threatens to get a gun and will not show his (empty) hands, I have difficulty understanding how any reasonable officer would not fear for his life in that situation and hence, how the use of deadly force in response to it would ever be deemed unjustified. In using so-called less-than-lethal measures against someone who, by contrast, is threatening to use lethal force, officers always run the risk that the measures employed against it will not neutralize the threat. In so doing, they potentially place themselves, and possibly the public, at greater risk of being harmed or killed.

As unfortunate as Mr. Thomson’s death is, I’m glad that (in hindsight) the measures officers employed in this situation did not result in greater risk to them or to the public. While the article is not clear about this, it seems to me as though they attempted, as extensively as was possible under the circumstances, to reason with him before employing any force. I wonder if Logan P.D. has a contingent of officers who have undergone Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training and, if so, whether any CIT officers responded to this incident. Given their reported attempts to reason with him, it wouldn’t surprise me if one or more CIT-trained officers had responded.

Should additional research into the effects of Tasers, particularly their effects on those in the midst of episodes brought on by psychiatric diagnoses, be undertaken? Certainly, and such results should include efforts to determine the time frame during which multiple deployments are safe (or unsafe). But unduly criticizing officers’ deployment of Tasers puts them in a no-win situation. In doing so, critics essentially leave officers no other choice but to use deadly force, and tell them we’d rather that they kill people than temporarily harm them.

Such reasoning makes no sense. Officers should have more tools and more choices for responding to incidents such as this one, not fewer.[4]

And officers especially should have as many choices as possible for subduing potentially dangerous subjects when, if they were to be denied such choices, their only remaining choice would be to resort to deadly force.

The bottom line is this: yes, more research is needed to determine how Tasers affect those in the midst of psychotic episodes; and yes, more research is needed to determine how many deployments of Tasers are safe (and not safe) within a given time period; and yes, officers should make every reasonable effort to respond to such incidents without resorting to a weapon of any kind; and yes, officers should avoid using a weapon of any kind (whether lethal or not) whenever possible.  But all of that having been said, Tasers save many lives that officers otherwise would be forced to take by resorting to deadly force.  Officers need more tools and more options for responding to situations potentially calling for deadly force, not fewer.


END NOTES

[1] For recent Tribune coverage of the Cardall case, see the following Web addresses, all accessed today: For initial coverage of the settlement, see http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55538549-78/cardall-taser-police-thompson.html.csp.  For criticism of initial attempts to keep details of the settlement confidential, see http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/blogsopenrecords/55559347-71/public-cardall-settlement-police.html.csp.  For a story reporting more details of the settlement than were initially reported, see http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55591619-78/cardall-police-settlement-taser.html.csp.  For criticism leveled against Hurricane P.D.’s response to this incident (as well as criticism of other incidents in which law enforcement is alleged to have employed excessively heavy-handed tactics, see Paul Rolly’s column at the following address: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/55591619-78/cardall-police-settlement-taser.html.csp.

[2] See Ken K. Gourdin (January 21, 2013) “Cardall scenario shows us CIT need,” The St. George [Utah] Daily Spectrum,  accessed on line on January 24, 2013 at the following address: http://www.thespectrum.com/article/20130120/OPINION/301200009/Cardall-scenario-shows-us-CIT-need.

[4] Id., see my comment following the story, which, while it is reproduced here in its entirety for the reader’s convenience, was originally posted under the screen name “Kenngo1969” on January 24, 2013.  For more information on Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, see Ken K. Gourdin (July 2012), Crisis Intervention Team officers visit New Reflection,” Tooele, Utah: New Reflection House (Page number unknown), available on this blog at the following address (last accessed today): http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/cit-officers-visit-new-reflection/

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About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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