Tasers have a record of safety

Tasers save lives when proper training and tight policy are used. Look at the record.

Katie Nelson’s Oct. 23 “Stun guns are dangerous alternatives” raises good questions, but is inaccurate to say that Tasers were the “direct cause of hundreds of deaths.” The University Police Department would like to address some facts about using Tasers as an alternative to deadly force.

In a short period of time in the year 2000, Minneapolis Police Department officers shot and killed three people with mental illness during psychotic episodes. As deputy police chief for the department, I was asked to explore better responses to mental health crisis response. The result was the development of crisis intervention teams and a 40-hour training curriculum. Tasers were about 20 percent of the training, but received 100 percent of media focus. Some in the mental health advocacy system believed Tasers would be the end of the need for deadly force. It is not that, but it is unquestionably a preferable alternative. Almost all of those who have died after a Taser application have also had either coronary disease or were in the throes of excited delirium, often induced by cocaine or methamphetamines. There have been a few instances where coroners has found Tasers to be the direct cause of a death, but those findings have also been challenged by other pathologists. If police officers used deadly force, in those and other instances, the probability of death is much higher.

These opinions are confirmed in independent British government research and extensive surveys of more than 80 Taser-deploying U.S. police departments conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum. Police executives are asking many of the same questions as Nelson in her article, but while doing so, we cannot abdicate our duty to minimize the use of deadly force every day. The University Police Department provided Tasers to our officers this year after they were certified after training. Officers were allowed, but not required, to experience an application of a Taser. I experienced it, and like the officers who joined me, it instilled both confidence in a Taser’s effectiveness and respect for limited and disciplined usage.

Since the introduction of Tasers to the University Police Department last spring, there has been only one usage by a University officer. Two intoxicated individuals were shooting up an apartment at a near-campus location. A University Police Department officer assisting Minneapolis Police Department located the apartment where the gunfire was still under way. Drawing on the lessons of Columbine, knowing a delay in action during an active shooter situation can cost lives, officers entered the apartment as safely as possible. One subject complied with officer instructions, the second did not, and the Taser was deployed, which was the appropriate action. The subject was taken into custody without injury. A .25-caliber handgun was located that had been discharged 43 or more times. Under these circumstances, a furtive move by the suspect may well have justified deadly force. That was avoided, sparing the suspect injury and the officer the trauma of taking a life, the latter being a consequence seldom publicly considered.

University Police Department officers have also twice pointed the Taser and gained compliance, again avoiding injury to a suspect and officers. Having spent 30 years in police service, I do not look for, nor expect, panaceas. Tasers can, and have been, abused in isolated instances around the country. With proper training, direction and accountability Tasers are undoubtedly an important advancement in reducing police use of force.

Gregory S. Hestness is the University police chief. Please send comments to [email protected]