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It's Not Just Guns. Police Often Use Tasers All Wrong, Too

Adapted from an Illustration provided by Karl Anderson.
Adapted from an Illustration provided by Karl Anderson.

By German Lopez
Eric Harris, an unarmed, black 44-year-old man, was pinned down on April 2 by multiple officers when one of them yelled, "Taser!" But the sound that followed wasn't the typical click-clack of a stun gun — it was the distinct blast of an actual bullet, which hit Harris, fatally wounding him. Robert Bates, the white, 73-year-old reserve Tulsa County, Oklahoma, deputy who fired his gun instead of his Taser, almost immediately realized his mistake, saying, "I shot him! I'm sorry!"
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Harris's death has drawn national attention because Bates, who's now been charged with second-degree manslaughter, shot an unarmed suspect who was already on the ground. But less frequently asked is whether Bates should have even tried to use his stun gun at all, given that Harris was already restrained by multiple police officers. Did Harris really present a threat that required extra force?

Law enforcement experts have increasingly criticized how police use stun guns in recent years, particularly as police use of force comes under mounting scrutiny following the deaths of unarmed black men like Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
"Sometimes cops go to Tasers too early and too often"
When stun guns were first introduced to police forces over the past few decades, they were originally designed and marketed as strictly nonlethal devices that could be used in place of a gun to incapacitate a violent suspect without deadly force. But it turns out the devices can kill, even when used against otherwise healthy targets.
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Yet cops have continued using stun guns as if they're nonlethal weapons, including in situations where a suspect, such as Harris, is being apprehended and doesn't appear to pose a threat to others.

The misuse and deadly risks of Tasers have pushed some law enforcement experts to question whether cops are too trigger-happy with stun guns. "It's what we call the 'lazy cop syndrome,'" Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on police training at the University of South Carolina, said. "Sometimes cops go to Tasers too early and too often."

When stun guns were first introduced to police forces over the past few decades, they were originally designed and marketed as strictly nonlethal devices that could be used in place of a gun to incapacitate a violent suspect without deadly force. But it turns out the devices can kill, even when used against otherwise healthy targets.

Yet cops have continued using stun guns as if they're nonlethal weapons, including in situations where a suspect, such as Harris, is being apprehended and doesn't appear to pose a threat to others.

The misuse and deadly risks of Tasers have pushed some law enforcement experts to question whether cops are too trigger-happy with stun guns. "It's what we call the 'lazy cop syndrome,'" Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on police training at the University of South Carolina, said. "Sometimes cops go to Tasers too early and too often."

In February, deputies used a stun gun on Natasha McKenna, a mentally ill woman at the Fairfax County, Virginia, jail who, according to the Washington Post's Tom Jackman and Justin Jouvenal, was restrained with handcuffs, leg shackles, and a mask. When the officers couldn't get McKenna to bend her knees to sit on a restraint chair, one of them delivered four shocks from a Taser. Within minutes, McKenna stopped breathing and died.

Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid told the Post the department defended the use of a Taser on a restrained prisoner, saying it was meant to gain compliance from McKenna without resorting to physical force. This appears to be the norm: previous surveys found that police department policies generally allow officers to use Tasers to help restrain someone who's physical with an officer, even if the suspect isn't actually attacking.

But police training experts are increasingly skeptical of using stun guns in this way, in large part because cases like McKenna's show that these weapons can sometimes kill.

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