MEMO ON TASERS AND USE OF FORCE.
TO: DURHAM CITY COUNCIL
FROM: DURHAM BEYOND POLICING COALITION
MONDAY, AUGUST 31, 2020
Re: Proposal to Durham City Council for a “Taser Replacement Program” through a 5-year contract with Axon Enterprises, costing the City $626,910 .
Durham Police Department proposed to the Durham City Council to purchase 250 replacement TASER Conducted Energy Weapons (CEW) for Police Officers in the pre-tax amount up to, but not to exceed, $626,910. Durham Police Department claimed that TASER CEWs offer Police Officers a less lethal force option when lawfully attempting to control assaultive and combative individuals, and that the utilization of tasers has been proven to reduce civil liability costs, reduce both officer and citizen injuries, reduce workman compensation claims, and save lives. In the memo below, we provide evidence of the following:
- The available data on the physical and psychological impacts of Conductive Electrical Weapons (CEW) is extremely poor and often suffers from conflicts of interest with CEW manufacturers.
- CEWs can increase risk of injury for law enforcement officers.
- CEWs reduce detained people’s ability to hear, understand, and follow officers’ orders for an indeterminate amount of time.
- CEWs are disproportionately used against the most mentally and physically vulnerable members of the community.
- The use of CEWs by sworn officers is known to increase use-of-force events and in-custody deaths.
- All forms of law enforcement use-of-force are disproportionately experienced by Black people, other people of color, and people experiencing mental and behavioral health crises.
- The safety and efficacy claims made by Axon Enterprises about their CEW devices are contradicted by journalistic investigations into their use in the field.
In 2007, the Durham Police Department produced a ‘Taser Technology Report’ explaining the adoption of Tasers into their “use of force continuum.” 1 The report repeatedly emphasized “the department’s goal to achieve improved officer and citizen safety.” Their rationale for adopting Tasers (p.5) was as follows: “In the furtherance of DPD’s mission to protect life and property of Durham citizens, it is the stance of department administrators that officers should have every proven and reasonable tool at their disposal. Tasers, thus far, have proven to be a reliable less-than-lethal use-of-force option that has demonstrated the added value of reducing incidents of physical confrontations between officers and those who refuse to obey officers’ lawful commands. In addition, tasers have reduced the sometimes serious and long-term injuries suffered by officers and suspects involved in physical confrontations.”
Twelve years after this report, research presented here indicates that this endorsement is not accurate; its evidence undermines the conclusion that DPD use of Tasers improves community and officer safety. For this reason, the Durham Beyond Policing Coalition urges our Mayor and members of City Council to vote against authorizing the City Manager to execute a five-year contract in the pre-tax amount of $626,910 with Axon Enterprises for the TASER 60, TASER replacement program. We ask that those same funds be redirected to fund the development and implementation of a mobile mental healthcare support system in Durham, similar to the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)/White Bird Clinic model in Oregon, which has saved its city $90 million and prevented the killing of people experiencing mental health crises by police answering 911 calls. Such a redirection of funds would improve care for Durham residents struggling with their mental health, would reduce police violence, and would result in significant cost savings for the City of Durham. It is also in line with the work of the Community-Led Safety and Wellness Task Force passed by the Durham City Council. We also urge the Durham City Council to review use of Tasers by the DPD since 2007.
(1) The available data on physical and psychological injuries caused by CEWs in the field is very poor.
CEWs were developed to reduce injury to officers and suspects in the field. Compared to firearms, research on CEWs has shown them to produce fewer fatal and non-fatal injuries compared to other types of use of force, including blunt force control (punches, kicks, batons) and firearms. 2–5
At the same time, scientific research on the physical effects of CEWs suffers from many significant limitations:
- Studies on the physical impacts of CEWs weapons overwhelmingly include populations of middle aged men, 6 (likely because these study populations are often police officers and police trainees).7 For this reason, the physical impacts of CEW injury on most members of the wider population are not well understood.
- There is no significant research on the impacts of CEW deployment against people with mental illness and how this may affect their health or treatment trajectories. However, we do know that people experiencing mental health crises overwhelmingly do not want a police response.8 Further, use-of-force practice as minor as restraining with handcuffs on individuals living with mental illness can produce a deep distrust of law enforcement that is still measurable years after a single cuffing event.9
- There is no research on the psychological or neurological impacts of being shot with a CEW – either from the sheer physical impact (measurable in someone who consents to being shot with a CEW in a research study) or the traumatic experience of being shot with a CEW in real life.
A significant portion of the scientific research on CEW use (and the research on TASER devices specifically) suffer from conflict of interest, in which researchers publishing studies and commentaries have financial interests in TASER International.10
(2) CEWs can increase the risk of injury to law enforcement officers.
One of the only scientifically robust and methodologically rigorous controlled trials of the effects of CEW on policing found that equipping sworn officers with CEWs not only led to a statistically significant increase of 23% in use-of-force incidents department-wide (the increase was by 48% among officers carrying CEWs) in general, and resulted in the number of attacks against officers doubling among those equipped with CEWs. The researchers concluded: “ The visual cue of a TASER in police–public interactions leads to aggression,” serving as a “hostility cue” during intervention.11
(3) CEWs reduce people’s ability to hear, understand, and follow officers’ orders.
A large study that assessed the impact of CEW on 142 healthy young adults found significant decreases in participants’ ability to remember or understand auditory information (such as spoken words, phrases, questions, and demands) for up to an hour after receiving a shock from a CEW device. The researchers who conducted this study indicated that these lapses could seriously interfere with the ability of a person shot with a CEW to hear and respond to the commands of a law enforcement officer and to comprehend Miranda rights if they are read while the suspect is still experiencing these cognitive effects of the CEW.12
(4) CEWs are disproportionately used against the most mentally and physically vulnerable members of the community.
Studies have shown that CEWs are used more often:
- Against people living with mental illness. Globally, CEWs are deployed in 28% of all police encounters with people experiencing mental distress.13 In one study that reviewed all CEW deployments in a single police department over a 6 year period found that 48% of CEW targets had a history of mental illness and 75% had a history of substance use.2
- Against people who are under the influence of stimulants.14 In fact, mental illness and stimulant use are synergistic risks for CEW injury: people with mental illness who are under the influence of stimulants (a strategy commonly used by people with mental illness to self-medicate in the absence of meaningful mental and behavioral health services) receive on average 3-4 times as many shots with a CEW during a single law enforcement intervention as a person with neither of these characteristics.14
- In people who are male with larger BMI, regardless of age, even those as young as 9 years old.2
(5) Equipping police with CEWs is associated with more use of force incidents.
CEWs have been demonstrated to worsen certain long-standing problems with use of force by law enforcement officers. A recent study of more than 50 major law enforcement agencies found that the number of firearm fatalities INCREASED 240% and the number of all in-custody deaths INCREASED 640% in the 12 months after officers were equipped with CEWs.15
6) All forms of law enforcement use-of-force is disproportionately experienced by Black people, other people of color, and people experiencing mental and behavioral health crises.
African Americans, American Indian/Alaskans, and Latinx men are killed disproportionately to white peers in a law enforcement officer’s calculation of “use of force.”16 Between 2010 and 2014, an examination of 2285 federal death certificates revealed that the rate of Hispanic deaths at the hands of law enforcement were 1.7 times higher and Blacks deaths 2.8 times higher, respectively, than the rate of white deaths at the hands of law enforcement.16 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, death by firearm in the context of police interaction is among the top 20 causes of death among these groups from 15-34 years old between 2000 and 2018, and the 10th cause of death for Black people from ages 15-24.17
Further, a study of escalation of force by officers in one large urban police department found that Black and Latinx suspects faced higher levels of force in earlier stages of their interactions with the police, making escalation quicker, more likely and more volatile among Black, indigenous and Latinx people.18
Reported rates of injury resulting from law enforcement intervention are also significantly higher among Black people and other people of color compared to whites. Data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System All Injuries Program found 683,033 civilian injuries incurred during law enforcement intervention that were subsequently treated in emergency rooms. Of these known injuries, 35.9% were reported in white patients and 44.6% in Black patients—despite whites representing 59.7% and Blacks 14.1% of the U.S. population.19 Though already quite stark, further research indicates these numbers underestimate the disparity, as a review of all civilian injuries resulting from law enforcement intervention in Indianapolis, IN and Wichita, KS found that white people were 30-40% more likely to have their injuries reported than their Black peers—and that 25% more non-white people sustained injuries that should have resulted in transportation to the hospital, but did not.20
Studies conducted among individuals living with severe and persistent mental illness reveal even greater disparities in law enforcement response and use of force against these individuals. A foundational, longitudinal study of 172 people living with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder found that these individuals were 14 times more often victims of violence, yet 48% of these people had encounters with police.21 A more recent study found that more than 65% of individuals living with mental illness who experienced arrest were detained in connection to crimes against public order, not for criminogenic behavior.22 An analysis of discharge records from Illinois state hospitals between 2000 and 2009 found that individuals treated for police-related interventions had higher odds of living with various forms of substance abuse or issues such as depression or schizophrenia.23
Collectively, this data indicates a wide-spread pattern of law enforcement use of force that is disproportionately applied more frequently, escalated more quickly, and applied more harshly producing more severe injuries among Black, indigenous, Hispanic populations, and populations of individuals living with mental illness or experiencing emergent mental distress.
(7) Investigative reports in the media contradict Axon’s own claims about its TASER devices.
The TASER devices for which the Durham City Council is considering a five year contract are from AXON Enterprise INC, which has a monopoly on the American market. AXON, its slogan “Protect Life,” has long promoted their line of CEWs as a safe alternative to firearms that delivers between 80% and 97% percent efficacy in subduing suspects who are violently resisting arrest. A recent report from a year-long investigation by American Public Media, titled “When Tasers Fail ,” directly contradicts these claims:
Data from some of the largest police departments in the nation reveals that officers rate their Tasers [sic] as effective as little as 55 percent of the time, or just a little better than a coin flip. When Tasers fail to subdue someone, the results can be life-threatening — for police, and especially for the public. APM Reports found more than 250 fatal police shootings nationwide between 2015 and 2017 that occurred after a Taser failed to incapacitate a suspect. In 106 of them, the suspect became more violent after receiving the electrical shock, according to a review of case files and media reports, suggesting the Taser may have made a bad situation worse. Police end up shooting someone after their Tasers prove ineffective.24 [emphasis added].
Reports from Amnesty International concur with these findings, leading this organization to submit a formal statement of concern to the U.S. Department of Justice. They write:
…[We have] serious concerns about the use of electro-shock devices [CEWs] in law enforcement, both as regards their safety and their potential for misuse. Portable and easy to use, with the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button without leaving substantial marks, electro-shock weapons are particularly open to abuse, as our organization has documented in numerous cases around the world.25
The findings presented throughout this memo are further supported by a comprehensive report conducted by Reuters, which found that, as of 2018, Black individuals are more likely to die from the use of a CEW and that over half of the 1,000+ fatalities associated with the use of a CEW as were “vulnerable” people, mostly people struggling with mental health crises.
We have to look no further than the recent brutal police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin that the “use of force” continuum that justifies use of Tasers is dangerously wrong. The Hill reported: “Authorities in Wisconsin said Friday that two police officers at the scene deployed stun guns when attempting to arrest Jacob Blake before [Kenosha, Wis., police officer Rusten Sheskey] shot the 29-year-old [Black man] multiple times in the back. ….Officials said that [Officer Vincent] Arenas and Sheskey, a seven year veteran of the Kenosha PD, both deployed stun guns at Blake but they were ‘unsuccessful’ in stopping him. Blake then went around his car, opened the driver’s side door and leaned in when Shekey fired on him seven times, theWisconsin DOB said Friday.” Given that Tasers deploy 50,000 volts in five-second bursts, these two shots would have significantly disoriented Jacob Blake, yet they were followed by the police officer’s escalation of force to the most lethal degree in the most lethal amounts.
Rather than provide city money to support tools that perpetuate police escalation of force, the Durham City Council should reallocate the $626,910 that would be spent over five years on Tasers to the mental health services described above and so greatly needed and required for Durham’s people, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, Durham Beyond Policing Coalition recommends that these funds be reallocated to the initial steps towards establishing a mobile mental healthcare dispatch center in Durham, similar to the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)/White Bird Clinic model.
Durham Beyond Policing is a grassroots coalition to divest from policing and prisons and reinvest municipal resources into supporting the health and wellbeing of Black & Brown communities, benefiting all community members in Durham, NC. Durham Beyond Policing Coalition organizations include All Of Us Or None Durham chapter; BYP100 (Black Youth Project) Durham Chapter; Communities in Partnership (C.I.P); Jewish Voice for Peace – Triangle chapter; Sanctuary Beyond Walls; SONG (Southerners On New Ground) Durham chapter; SpiritHouse Harm Free Zone; UE 150 Durham City Workers Union; Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ)- Triangle chapter; and other Durham County residents.
This document was shaped, co-authored, and reviewed by a volunteer team of Durham resident members of the above organizations.
Please direct any questions regarding this memo to Kyla Hartsfield at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Taser Technology Report. Published online 2007. Accessed August 30, 2020. https://durhamnc.gov/DocumentCenter/View/2157/DPD-Taser-Technology-Report-PDF
- Strote J, Walsh M, Angelidis M, Basta A, Hutson HR. Conducted electrical weapon use by law enforcement: an evaluation of safety and injury. J Trauma . 2010;68(5):1239-1246. doi:10.1097/TA.0b013e3181b28b78
- Jenkinson E, Neeson C, Bleetman A. The relative risk of police use-of-force options: evaluating the potential for deployment of electronic weaponry. J Clin Forensic Med. 2006;13(5):229-241. doi:10.1016/j.jcfm.2005.11.006
- Stevenson R, Drummond-Smith I. Medical implications of Conducted Energy Devices in law enforcement. J Forensic Leg Med . 2020;73:101948. doi:10.1016/j.jflm.2020.101948
- Kornblum RN, Reddy SK. Effects of the Taser in fatalities involving police confrontation. J Forensic Sci . 1991;36(2):434-438.
- Becour B. Conducted electrical weapons or stun guns: a review of 46 cases examined in casualty. Am J Forensic Med Pathol . 2013;34(2):142-146. doi:10.1097/PAF.0b013e31828873d6
- VanMeenen KM, Cherniack NS, Bergen MT, Gleason LA, Teichman R, Servatius RJ. Cardiovascular evaluation of electronic control device exposure in law enforcement trainees: a multisite study. J Occup Environ Med . 2010;52(2):197-201. doi:10.1097/JOM.0b013e3181cc58ba
- Boscarato K, Lee S, Kroschel J, Hollander Y, Brennan A, Warren N. Consumer experience of formal crisis-response services and preferred methods of crisis intervention. Int J Ment Health Nurs . 2014;23(4):287-295. doi:10.1111/inm.12059
- Krameddine YI, Silverstone PH. Police use of handcuffs in the homeless population leads to long-term negative attitudes within this group. Int J Law Psychiatry . 2016;44:81-90. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2015.08.034
- O’Brien AJ, Thom K. Police use of TASER devices in mental health emergencies: A review. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 2014;37(4):420-426. doi:10.1016/j.ijlp.2014.02.014
- Ariel B, Lawes D, Weinborn C, Henry R, Chen K, Sabo HB. The “Less-Than-Lethal Weapons Effect”—Introducing TASERs to Routine Police Operations in England and Wales: A Randomized Controlled Trial: Criminal Justice and Behavior . Published online December 19, 2018. doi:10.1177/0093854818812918
- Kane RJ, White MD. TASER® Exposure and Cognitive Impairment. Criminology & Public Policy. 2016;15(1):79-107. doi:10.1111/1745-9133.12173
- Hallett N, Duxbury J, McKee T, et al. Taser use on individuals experiencing mental distress: An integrative literature review. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs . Published online January 19, 2020. doi:10.1111/jpm.12594
- Bailey CA, Smock WS, Melendez AM, El-Mallakh RS. Conducted-Energy Device (Taser) Usage in Subjects With Mental Illness. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online. 2016;44(2):213-217.
- Lee BK, Vittinghoff E, Whiteman D, Park M, Lau LL, Tseng ZH. Relation of Taser (electrical stun gun) deployment to increase in in-custody sudden deaths. Am J Cardiol . 2009;103(6):877-880. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2008.11.046
- Edwards F, Lee H, Esposito M. Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity, and sex. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA . 2019;116(34):16793-16798. doi:10.1073/pnas.1821204116
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS). Published 2020. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://webappa.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/leadcause.html
- Kahn KB, Steele JS, McMahon JM, Stewart G. How suspect race affects police use of force in an interaction over time. Law Hum Behav . 2017;41(2):117-126. doi:10.1037/lhb0000218
- Feldman JM, Chen JT, Waterman PD, Krieger N. Temporal Trends and Racial/Ethnic Inequalities for Legal Intervention Injuries Treated in Emergency Departments: US Men and Women Age 15–34, 2001–2014. Journal of Urban Health . 2016;93(5):797-807. doi:10.1007/s11524-016-0076-3
- Lewis S, Bueno de Mesquita B. Racial Differences in Hospital Evaluation After the Use of Force by Police: a Tale of Two Cities. J Racial Ethn Health Disparities . Published online May 19, 2020. doi:10.1007/s40615-020-00742-6
- Brekke JS, Prindle C, Bae SW, Long JD. Risks for individuals with schizophrenia who are living in the community. Psychiatr Serv . 2001;52(10):1358-1366. doi:10.1176/appi.ps.52.10.1358
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- Gilbert C, Caputo A, Hing G. Tasers are less reliable than their maker has claimed. The results can be deadly. Published May 19, 2019. Accessed August 25, 2020. https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2019/05/09/when-tasers-fail
- Amnesty International. Amnesty International’s Concerns about Taser use; Statement to the US Justice Department inquiry into deaths in custody. Published online 2007. Accessed August 24, 2020. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AMR511512007ENGLISH.pdf