Tasers and Community Controversy: Investigating Training Officer Perceptions of Public Concern over Conducted Energy Weapons

Article excerpt

Perhaps one of the greatest changes over the last decade to police use of force policies and tactics has occurred with the widespread adoption of Tasers[TM], "stun guns" and other conducted energy devices (CEDs). While adoption estimates vary, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported that more than half of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have deployed some form of CED (GAO, 2005). And even though CEDs have become a widely utilized form of restraint technology, these types of police technology have continued to generate public controversy. For example, international human rights organizations (e.g., Amnesty International), police watchdog groups (e.g., local "Copwatch" groups), and civil rights organizations (e.g., American Civil Liberties Union, 2005) have strongly opposed the adoption of Tasers, and have routinely tied Taser usage to police in-custody deaths (see Amnesty International, 2004, 2008). Moreover, the controversy over these types of devices has been sustained by popular news media accounts of questionable CEDs deployments involving children, college students, pregnant women, protesters, and the mentally ill. As a result, a polarizing and emotional public debate has emerged in relation to the use of CEDs by police agencies. On one side, human rights groups and activists organizations have called into question the legitimacy and safety of weapons (Amnesty International, 2008). One the other side, CEDs manufacturers have strongly argued for the safety and effectiveness of these devices (see Taser International, Inc., 2008).

Strangely, while there has been a growing body of research on deployment patterns and medical affects of conducted energy restraint devices, there has been comparatively little research on the public controversy surrounding CEDs or its effect on police policy or training (Kaminski, 2009; McEwen, 1997; Thomas, Collins, & Lovrich, 2010). As a result, this paper situates police training officers within this debate and examines their perceptions of the controversy. In particular, we examine how police training officers perceive CEDs and how they make sense of the controversy surrounding Tasers. In addition to examining their attitudes on the more controversial aspects of the Taser, we are also interested in how comfortable officers are with the weapon and how it has impacted their jobs as police officers.

Police Less Lethal Force and CEDs

Communities call on police officers to perform a wide array of social functions, ranging from providing front line social service roles to intervening in violent situations. Of all duties associated with policing, however, the capacity to use force is identified as one of the core functions of the police (Bittner, 1980). Indeed, police officers are the most visible instrument of state power a citizen may encounter. For police to perform their role, it is necessary for them to have the power to use force to restrain violent subjects. While departments typically have polices and guidelines on use of force procedures, officers have tremendous discretion as to when, and to what degree, force may be used (Alpert & Dunham, 2004). Yet, despite the need to use force, the problem of excessive force has been a recurring source of public controversy for police departments. For example, high profile uses of force by the police was often a catalyst for urban unrest during the 1960's (Walker, 2005). The 1991 beating of Rodney King was another high profile incident of police violence that provoked civil unrest and outrage. The fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas, the fifteenth African-American shot by police in five years, sparked riots in Cincinnati in 2001.

Due to controversies over police use of force and the political fallout that results from police shootings, police departments have long been interested in adopting "less lethal" means of subduing resisting suspects (Adams & Jennison, 2007). To solve the dilemma of maintaining the legitimacy of police use of force while ensuring officer safety, departments have long sought a more "humane" and less harmful means of restraining suspects. …