Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Technological Innovation and Police Officers' Understanding and Use of Force

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Technological Innovation and Police Officers' Understanding and Use of Force

Article excerpt

From data-driven enforcement strategies like hotspots policing (Manning 2011) to new "big data" surveillance practices (Brayne 2017), U.S. policing experienced unprecedented technological advancement over the past three decades. The use of force-a defining feature of the police occupation (Bittner 1970)-is no exception to the inexorable current of technological change; modern police officers have access to a greater range of coercive tools than ever, especially with regard to less-than-lethal weapons (Alpert et al. 2011). Chief among these advancements is the conducted energy device (CED) or "TASER," a weapon that incapacitates subjects with 50,000 V that cause involuntary muscle contractions (NIJ 2008). Today, TASERs are used by more than 17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies (Axon 2015) and are lauded as safe, effective alternatives to the lethal force that is at the heart of longstanding judicial and public concerns over excessive force (Obasogie and Newman 2018; PERF 2011).

As with any technological innovation, however, TASERs also come with the risk of unintended and even counterproductive consequences. Despite their less-than-lethal benefits, concerns exist that TASERs are used in ways that nonetheless constitute excessive force that injures members of the public and damages the legitimacy of police (Amnesty International 2004; Kleinig 2007). Unfortunately, evidence of the role of TASER technology in the use of excessive force is sparse and the research literature on excessive force has not kept pace with the advent of the TASER that is commonly discussed as a safer alternative to more injurious force options, such as batons or firearms (Adams and Jennison 2007). Furthermore, neither the existing literature on excessive force nor TASER use considers how patrol officers' understandings of force with regard to the TASER contribute to the systemic issue of excessive force (Kappeler et al. 1998).

In light of the current emphasis on police violence and its detrimental effect on police legitimacy, public safety, and community health (Carr et al. 2007; Gau and Brunson 2010; President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing 2015), there is pressing need for empirical accounts of how officers make sense of this new technology and incorporate it into their understanding and use of force that-even if less injurious than other force options-can still constitute excessive force.1 Drawing on observational and unstructured interview data from three urban police departments in the United States, I describe how officers' understanding of the TASER as a lessthan-lethal force option has both beneficial and unintended consequences for their use of coercive force. First, TASERs are understood and used by officers as a force option that can enhance safety for them and the public, including during "hidden" TASER use whereby officers threaten electrocution to ensure suspect compliance without leaving any physical evidence of the TASER's use. Second, officers understand and use the TASER as a force option that allows them to refrain from using their firearm in situations they believe would have justified lethal force, particularly when confronting suspects suffering from mental illness. Despite these apparent benefits of the TASER, officers also link understanding of the TASER as a safety-enhancing force option to the use of less-than-lethal but still excessive force by young, inexperienced officers already prone to unnecessarily escalate interactions with the public. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for the technological control of excessive force, as well as for broader sociolegal considerations of the unintended consequences of technological innovation in policing.

The Use of Excessive Force

The authority to use force is a central feature of the police role that allows police to enforce the edicts of the state, ensure the safety of the public, and to defend themselves and other officers from harm (Bittner 1970; Harmon 2008). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.