The history of when police have used a Taser instead of a firearm

For situations in which a law enforcement officer is not going to be able to retreat, a Taser is a “last resort,” according to a Minnesota law enforcement agency, the Burnsville Police Department. During a Taser deployment, a police officer would sometimes fire his gun before the Taser may be ready or even deployed. But from what we know of fatalities involving police use of deadly force, the handful of fatal shootings in which police used a firearm instead of a Taser may never have been fatal in the first place.

What is a Taser?

A Taser is a handheld electronic control device that delivers electric pulses in short bursts. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice called them “a promising tool that can transform the way police control individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others.” But critics argue that Tasers send weaker currents than the ones often used in shooting other lethal force.

How do Tasers work?

To create a current that can be felt by an officer, the Taser typically has an electrostatic probe attached. When that probe hits an opponent, it results in a mild current that generates heat. The current induces a somewhat painful shock that quickly dissipates in most people, but in a person like a human hair, a brief, mild electrical jolt can damage tissue.

How are Tasers used?

In a Taser deployment, the current acts like a rolling pin, creating heat to numb someone. When the officer already has close-range, rapid-fire weapons trained on the target, the Taser acts as a buffer, slowing the impact of those weapons. It doesn’t affect the effectiveness of those weapons, but it does slow the person down enough for the officer to make a decision about whether to fire — sometimes, after doing a “background check” to make sure that the Taser had worked in previous deployments.

What does it look like when a Taser is deployed?

Depending on the size of the suspect, the Taser will come into contact with the person’s back, shoulder, stomach or arms. From there, the Taser will push the current toward its target until, in most cases, it causes a little bit of discomfort, mainly headache. As with anything that causes a tiny jolt of electricity, it will take a person about 30 seconds to feel the effects of a Taser.

What about deadly force?

Conventional Tasers “are a tool in the toolbox,” according to one expert, whose understanding is backed up by studies done on subjects who have actually been shot and killed. When put to the test, the voltage of a Taser delivers 10 to 50 times less impact energy than the power of lethal force. But it hasn’t eliminated all the negative consequences of a Taser.

In 2015, the last year for which available data is available, at least 20 people in the United States died after being shot by police, including a man who was holding an air rifle and a toddler who was mistaken for a suspect. Another 11 people in the country died after being shocked with Tasers — nine of whom were unarmed — and eight other cases involved “unknown causes.” In some cases, investigators noted that police sent the device too far into a suspect’s body, even though there is not a requirement that an officer leave his or her firearm nearby when using a Taser.

Do police ever accidentally shoot someone with a Taser?

Most times, a Taser has worked properly and people do not suffer serious injury from it. Other times, however, they do. In 2010, a police officer in New Jersey used a Taser inappropriately when he grabbed a man’s shirt and used the Taser on him without clearing the area first. The Taser ran into his neck, killing him. In 2015, a Taser malfunctioned at a demonstration in Houston, leaving a white man, an officer and a bystander incapacitated.

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