Cops Respond: Is a TASER a Deadly Weapon in the Wrong Hands?

May 4, 2022

After we ran our recent article, Is a TASER a Deadly Force Weapon When Utilized by a Resistive Subject, and asked readers to share their responses to that question in the context of an officer-involved shooting in Grand Rapids, MI, e-mails from across the country flooded in. In this piece we’ll share a random sample of just a few.

We’ll begin with a discussion between Chief Tim Styka from Menasha, WI PD and Calibre’s Jim Glennon.

Tim writes:

Hi Jim,

I always enjoy reading your analysis on use of force cases. I think they are generally spot on and help officers and trainers to ask themselves some very good questions.

When the Grand Rapids case came out this was one that made me pause. I taught TASER for over 20 years, many of which were as a master instructor. In many classes we did discuss the question of whether being confronted by a TASER would/should illicit a deadly force response.

The first thing that usually came up was that if an officer was presented with a TASER being pointed at them, the appropriate response would be to draw a firearm. However, it was important to know the limitations of the TASER and to consider whether an officer could put a physical barrier between them and the subject or gain distance beyond the probe capabilities. If so, that would be the priority. If this was not possible, then deadly force may be the appropriate response for exactly the reasons you have listed in your article.

It is my understanding that in the Grand Rapids case, both sets of probes were already deployed and were ineffective on the subject. If this was the case, I am leaning toward a different conclusion that the one in the article.

A TASER with the probes deployed is not able to cause neuromuscular incapacitation. The spread of the arcing TASER is not wide enough for this to take place. Therefore, at best, the device is now a pain compliance device and would not be able to incapacitate an officer in the same way NMI does. Therefore, if an officer did get hit with a contact shot from a TASER with deployed cartridges there would be pain, but that is it. To eliminate the pain caused by contact with the device, an officer can disengage. Things could be different if the subject was on top of the officer for a number of reasons, but that was not the case in this situation.

Therefore, I think this is a very important distinction that officers should make.  I think the case of a deadly force response to a TASER with probes not deployed can be made. I think making this case for a device where the probes have already been deployed may be a much harder case to make.

Thanks again for all of your thoughts and wisdom in the articles you write. They are a great service to the law enforcement community.

Jim responds:

Chief,

Thanks so much for reaching out and your kind words about my articles. I like when I get different opinions, which is why we do so many follow ups. Veteran experienced officers have the best ideas and they need to be heard.

Just a couple of thoughts about your comments. I actually endeavored to not reach a definitive conclusion in the article, though my bias I’m sure leaked through.

That aside, I was teaching in Indianapolis two days ago—the first time live in a classroom since the article—and I showed the video. I was told by several TASER instructors that the TASER that was used in Grand Rapids was a TASER 7, which apparently discharges differently. Also, we had a hard time telling whether the TASER was deployed once or twice. That said, some had the opinion that while we all know that a drive stun involves nothing more than minor pain compliance and is almost always ineffective as a control device, what if the perpetrator shoved it in the neck or eye of the officer? What level of force would that have been?

As I stated in the article, a whole bunch of possibilities and variables which result in many, many different opinions. I really, really appreciate yours Chief. Truly. Please keep reading and responding. You made great points.

From Tim:

Hi Jim,

Thanks a bunch for your response. I would agree 100% that you did not make a definitive conclusion.  My thought was more along the lines of trying to ensure that there is a distinction of circumstances that officers consider when deciding if a TASER necessitates a deadly force response. When considering the concept of weapon, intent and delivery system, the delivery system may not reach that level with a deployed cartridge(s).

I guess my guilt as an instructor is coming through. Haha. I’m reflecting on classes I have been in, and even those I may have taught, were a student could possibly get the message that TASER = deadly force, which is clearly not an absolute. I would hate to see an officer respond with deadly force to a deployed TASER or one that is at a distance that prevents the probes from having any possibility of reaching the officer. That could be problematic.

At the end of the day, I think we are pretty much aligned. Neither of us know with a high degree of certainty whether both probes were deployed (and more importantly whether the officer realized how many probes were deployed during this incident). If both probes were deployed, and based upon the officer being in a position of advantage, there may have been other options. If they weren’t, and the officer was being drive stunned and could not get away, or if there were some other circumstances that we are not aware of, this may very well have been the best option. We simply don’t know.

My thought in reaching out to you is that if there is a follow up article, you can use your respected voice to bring up this aspect of deadly force and TASERs. It is not a simple A+B=C. I’m not trying to exonerate or condemn the officer in this case. Rather, I’m trying to help all of us get a little bit better each day.

Thanks again for all that you do for the law enforcement community,

Lastly, Jim responds:

100% agree with all.

A couple of points about the TASER, which I think is a very good and necessary weapon to have available.

1. Notice the DA in Atlanta (former DA, actually. She was corrupt.) charged the officer involved in the Rayshard Brooks shooting incident in June, 2020 publicly saying that a TASER is not a deadly force weapon, therefore the officer’s response was unreasonable. That same DA, however, charged officers a few weeks before who used a TASER and the public statement was that the officers were using deadly force by utilizing the TASER.

2. TASERs actually work only about 50-60% of the time in the field.

3. We have video after video of officers using TASERS against edged weapons in close proximity which I believe is tactically unsound and dangerous.

4. We also have video after video of – mostly younger – officers going to TASERs very quickly, by-passing verbal efforts.

Again brother, thanks for reaching out.

George T. Williams, Director of Training at Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, WA writes

The complete bodycam video changed my mind about the justification of the shooting (funny how more information affects the evaluation of force). The complete video showed the TASER had been discharged and was no longer available to anyone in “probe mode.” This leaves only touch mode (or in TASER-speak, drive stun) that is painful but not capable of temporarily disabling the officer and leaving him vulnerable to being disarmed of his handgun.

The suspect was face down and able to control the TASER. The officer was in the dominant position and not in danger of losing that position at that moment. The officer was aware of the passenger behind him but had no indication the passenger was intending to interfere.

The officer was able to have time to deliberate and choose an action rather than being forced to instantly rely upon a trained response. This time to deliberate gave him choices, one of which was to warn the suspect he was going to shoot him if he did not release the TASER.

If we take the fatigue factor out of the equation, the fact that the TASER had been discharged changed the TASER’s threat to the officer from a weapon that could disable him to a painful application not capable of rendering him incapable of defending his holstered handgun and not causing death or serious bodily injury. At that moment, there didn’t appear to be grounds to come to a reasonable belief that the suspect represented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. Therefore, it was feasible for the officer to warn the suspect of his intent to shoot. That said, the danger to the officer was insufficient to justify deadly force. A reasonable officer in the same situation would likely not have made the same decision to shoot.

Long time law enforcement writer and certified first responder peer support professional Barbara Schwartz writes:

You asked for feedback on your recent article about whether a TASER should be considered a deadly force weapon.

The article struck a chord with me.

My answer has many facets.  The first issue: As you pointed out.  If the suspect hadn’t fled, resisted arrest, and tried to take the TASER, the outcome would have been different.  So, who’s to blame?  Did the suspect contribute to his demise through his own actions?

Next facet is did the Grand Rapids PD have a policy regarding this scenario and was that officer trained in that policy?

Another facet references my “Train your Brain” article where Jim Leo talked about decision fatigue.  What other scenes had this officer been on that day? The day before?  How many times in the past has he had to fight for his life on the ground with a suspect?

Which brings up the main point:  Civilians, whether they be news media, activists, citizens, politicians, how many have had to fight for their lives in the course of their workday?  If not, how can they judge officers who are put in the position by the suspect and have to do just that.

When will we blame the actions of the suspects and not the officers who must react?

Yet another facet is the fallout of this controversy.  Will officers, after seeing this kind of scrutiny, hesitate to use deadly force?  Is this hesitancy already contributing to the increase in LE murders?

This Grand Rapids officer obviously felt that his life was being threatened since he used deadly force.  The suspect didn’t grab the TASER because he wanted to play with it or see how it worked.  He wanted to use if against the officer.  Plain and simple.  Suspect demonstrated his intent to harm the officer by handling the TASER.

Time to blame the perpetrator, not the cop performing his/her job lawfully and within policy.

An officer writes:

Thank you for publishing the fantastic article regarding the Grand Rapids OIS.

Below are some comments/observations:

— In watching the Grand Rapids OIS, my first observation was it didn’t appear the officer called out his traffic stop/location (full disclosure – he may have and it just wasn’t part of the recording released). If he did in fact call out the stop, he should have had a cover officer rolling nearby. Given that Grand Rapids is decently sized and well staffed, it wouldn’t be unusual to have a cover officer in the area.

— We can’t forget that there is at least one more subject who was present during the encounter. The officer is in what feels like is the fight of his life and has no idea if he is fighting just one subject or if the second subject is going to attack as well.

— Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES)  defines a deadly force assault on an officer as: “Any force used against an officer or another person that may result in great bodily harm or the loss of human life.”  Note “great bodily harm.” A TASER discharged by someone who is not trained in the proper use of a TASER could easily cause great bodily harm with the TASER (i.e. a TASER cartridge shooting two harpoons point blank in the face of the officer). [See the MCOLES Subject Control Continuum]

— Lastly, another observation that I noticed was the person who was filming the incident from their cellphone did not have any reaction to the gunfire. In my opinion, an ordinary, sober, person would have some sort of human response to the sound of gunfire (to be fair they may not have known the noise was the officer discharging their firearm).

I’m sure I’ll have many more observations/opinions as the case unfolds, but in my opinion, it was a justified OIS.

Sgt. Matthew Davidson writes:

I know you have been in fights on duty, they are simply exhausting. Backup seems to take forever, you have a million things racing through your mind, your hypothalamus takes over and you focus all you have into surviving that fight.

You could hear the officer was out of breath. His fine motor skills had deteriorated even when he tried to deploy the TASER at such close range. He was exhausted and the suspect took complete control over a tool that the officer knows can easily incapacitate him in an instant. No matter the fight in you, a TASER can and will incapacitate you for a period of time. The multitude of bad things that can and likely would happen during that incapacitation are unthinkable. Given those circumstances, in that moment, I have no doubt the officer felt he had no choice but to shoot that fatal shot.

I have no doubt the officer did not see race in that moment. All he saw was a guy very actively fighting him and a guy that had gained complete control over one of his own weapons. All the officer saw or thought was survival, of that I have no doubt.

To the critics saying a man should not be shot and killed for a minor traffic violation, he wasn’t. He was shot and killed because he chose to assault, disarm, and possess a potentially deadly weapon if used to incapacitate the officer. In the heat of the moment, when your life is on the line, any viable target on the body of the offender is justified. It does not matter if it was the head, back, or even big toe, you shoot what you can in that moment to stop the threat. It just so happens in this case, the closest available target was the back of the subject’s head. Deadly force is never pretty. There will always be some that do not think any police shooting is justified. We cannot change that. All we can do is train our officers to be right, hold them accountable when they aren’t, and be transparent in all that we do.

Sgt. David Sprague (ret.) formerly with the Albuquerque PD writes:

All good points already mentioned. Might want to add some statistics. Per table 19 of the FBI UCR on Officers feloniously killed (murdered): From 2011 to 2020, 503 officers were murdered and, of those, 16 were murdered with their own weapons after they were taken away by the offenders.

In a 60 Minutes interview FBI Director Christopher Wray addressed the skyrocketing rate of murders against police officers, saying the surge is far outpacing general violent crime. “Violence against law enforcement in this country is one of the biggest phenomena that I think doesn’t get enough attention, Wray said, adding that officers are being murdered at a rate of nearly “one every five days.”

Murders of police officers rose by 59% in 2021 (73 officers murdered). There is ONLY one reason an offender attempts to take a police officer’s weapon: to kill him. Once that decision is made and that action is taken by an offender, all bets are off and lethal force is justified.

Activists like Al Sharpton and organizations like BLM continue to promote and encourage people, and particularly black men, to resist arrest and fight police. The obvious outcome of this mentality will be more police shootings.

Calibre newsletter reader Mike McKinney writes:

I retired in 2016 after 20 years with USBP/ICE and had seven years as a Deputy before that. We didn’t have TASERs and had to rely on an ASP baton and later OC. But we were always taught the factors involved when justifying the use of deadly force, including prior knowledge of the suspect, criminal history, size, fighting experience, officer conditioning, etc.

So theoretically anything can be a deadly weapon, even just the suspect himself/herself. With the popularity of MMA and other combat training, a subject can be much more dangerous that I would have thought during my career. And thankfully, we are seeing an increase in training in BJJ and other combative by many departments.

Here is the bottom line for the use of deadly force in my opinion. Anything or any physical tool a suspect can use to render an officer incapacitated and give the suspect the opportunity to physically (chokes) or obtain a weapon (whether his own or the officer’s) that critically injure or kill an officer justify the use of deadly force. The Michael Brown case is an example of this.

In this case, we have no idea what the subject’s final intention was. Whether it was just to run away and escape or if he was willing to murder an officer to facilitate that escape. But had he incapacitated the officer with the TASER, he would have had the means to also murder the officer [Means (yes), Opportunity (yes), Motive (unknown)]. Therefore, I believe deadly force was justified.

Det. Dennis McNulty (ret.) formerly with AZ DPS writes:

I was still a detective when our agency (AZ DPS) adopted the TASER for all officers.  At first, it was only issued to S.W.A.T. members.  Our training, even then, was, if a suspect gets control of your TASER, the incident just escalated to a deadly force situation for the very reasons written about in the article, i.e. threat of injury and/or death to the officer.

As a detective who worked on a vehicle theft task force for 25 years, I know that fictitious plates on any vehicle is a red flag for a possible stolen. And someone who tries to flee could be a wanted fugitive, could have a weapon, etc. How many officers have been lost when a fleeing suspect suddenly turned and shot the officer?  This is still such a dangerous life we chose.  May God watch over all LEO’s.

Chief Dale Gustafson (ret.) formerly with Homewood (IL) PD writes:

I believe that the officer WAS legally justified in the use of deadly force in this case.  As you stated, once an offender gains control of a TASER the officer’s own firearm becomes a deadly threat to him/her.  The fact that the TASER is not a deadly weapon in and of itself is not the point – it is a means to an end.

I give no credence to any of the other points that people and the media have made – the stop was legitimate, he was clearly resisting, the police don’t just let people go because they don’t want to be arrested and there is absolutely no evidence (as far as I know) that race played a role in the officer’s decision to use deadly force.

From a training standpoint I do believe we can learn some things from this encounter:

— Wait for backup – stall, buy time, engage the offender in conversation.  Resistance is less likely with more than one officer present.

— If possible, don’t draw a weapon, ANY weapon, when it’s clearly within the grasp of the offender.

— The officer had already given warnings to the offender – follow through and use the weapon (I understand the reluctance to use a weapon in light of today’s circumstances).

— When the officer had the offender on the ground the first time it may have been better to simply tie him up with a grappling technique until backup arrived rather than try and cuff him alone.

— An officer’s hands and feet can never be used against the officer.  Learn a martial art, wrestling techniques or boxing skills.  Use these hand-to-hand skills if there is a possibility that an offender will be able to disarm the officer.  It may look bad, but a punch or kick to incapacitate the offender eliminates the possibility of an incapacitating weapon, the officer’s weapon, being used against an officer.

These are just some learning points for future consideration, not criticism of the officer in this case.  As I said earlier, the officer’s use of force, in my opinion, was legally justified.  All the offender had to do was comply!

Thoughts? E-mail us at: editor@calibrepress.com

 

 

 

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