By Constable Bruce Elfant
Much has been written and broadcast in recent weeks regarding an incident where a Precinct 3 deputy constable tasered a 72 year old woman during a traffic stop. Even though my office (Precinct 5) was not involved with this situation, I received hundreds of e-mails from Travis County residents and people around the nation who shared their opinions about this case and the general use of tasers by law enforcement officials.
Tasers were first developed for use by law enforcement officers as a less lethal weapon intended to subdue people who pose a threat to themselves or others without causing serious injury or death to officers or suspects. Law enforcement officers began using tasers on a widespread basis in the late 90s. Today about 12,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies, including many in Texas, authorize tasers. Taser Inc. claims that tasers have saved tens of thousands of lives because police did not have to reach for or fire their weapons. Critics of tasers point to the couple hundred suspects who have died after being tased, the disproportionate number of minorities who have been tased in some jurisdictions and instances where officers clearly should not have tased a suspect.
Virtually all law enforcement agencies have policies that govern the use of tasers, but their placement on the use of force continuum varies widely. A Government Accountability Office report found that some agencies restrict the use of tasers to situations to where batans would be used. Some agencies, including the Austin Police Department (APD), authorize tasers when “the officer perceives the situation as volatile” where chemical spray would be used. Other agencies authorize use when suspects are passive but not responding to verbal commands. APD prohibits the use of tasers “on pregnant women, children under 14, the elderly or disabled or suspects fleeing from officers for a misdemeanor or non violent offense unless the suspect is armed and poses an immediate threat to the officer or another person or using the weapon when flammable liquids or gasses are present.” APD officers are also required to warn suspects before firing tasers. State law does not require officers who use tasers to be trained but for safety and liability reasons practically all agencies do require up to16 hours of training. Some agencies require periodic re-training and many agencies require officers who carry tasers to be tased so they can better understand the impact.
Most law enforcement officials believe that tasers are legitimate law enforcement tools that when properly used reduce or prevent injuries and save lives. Unlike the use of firearms where specific rules and training requirements exist, thousands of Texas law enforcement agencies set their own taser policies and determine what training their officers should receive. As a result some officers are authorized to tase passive but non-compliant individuals while others are not. Some officers receive adequate training to properly handle tasers and make proper judgments while others do not. Given the public outcry over the latest taser incidents and others, the Texas Legislature should work with law enforcement officials to develop a state-wide taser policy and training requirement. A single state-wide policy would result in more consistent enforcement by officers when used throughout Texas and even within Travis County.