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Police Misconduct: Abuse of the Taser

The Problem

Police misconduct is an issue that greatly concerns citizens since law enforcement officers are supposed to exhibit good conduct all the time. This applied project will aim to determine the prevalence of police misconduct with particular focus on the misuse of tasers by the police. Police are sometimes forced to make use of force to arrest or subdue criminal suspects.

Traditionally firearms which are issued to all law enforcement officers where used to coerce suspects into compliance but in recent decades, tasers are becoming preferred weapons since they are less-lethal. While the taser is supposed to be used in situations where the application of physical force would be necessary, this weapon has been used by some law enforcement officers arbitrarily. This project will endeavor to analyze the reasons why some police officers engage in this unbecoming behavior.

The factors which have led to the increase of police misconduct with regard to taser use will also be discussed. The negative outcomes of such behavior both for the citizens and the law enforcement agency will be highlighted. In addition to this, preventive measures which can be employed to mitigate or stop taser misuse by police officers will be identified and recommended.

Factors Bearing on the Problem

Police Misconduct is costly on the state

Police misconduct is costly to the state since it can result in lawsuits which may end up awarding the citizens huge monetary compensation. In an Oregon case where police officers used a taser against two men who had already surrendered, the city was forced to pay $138,000 following a lawsuit filed against the department (Bernstein, 2011). Many law enforcement agencies are already facing financial difficulties due to budget cuts and increased expenditures as they carry out their tasks.

Discretionary Power of Police

Police have a lot of discretionary power vested in them and this discretion comes about because of the autonomy that a police must have in decision making while in the field. Kinnaird (2007) demonstrates that many law enforcement agencies allow latitude in following certain procedures and the officer is only reprimanded if they engage in gross negligence.

The police officer’s decision regarding the level of force that should be used in a real situation is based on the circumstances which are often rapidly changing and unclear. This discretionary power makes it possible for police officers to misuse tasers since the officer is supposed to make a personal judgment on whether or not to use the weapon

Taser use is increasing in the US

The misuse of tasers is of specific concern since these less-lethal weapons have gained popularity with law enforcement agencies. Some cities such as Miami and Phoenix have tasers issued out to every police officer (Miller, 2008). Many other cities are also considering issuing out tasers as part of the standard equipment for all officers.

Some researchers argue that the availability of non-lethal weapons such as the taser encourage their use by police officers since the suspect is unlikely to suffer from any permanent injury or death from their use (Government Accountability Office, 2005). Officers are therefore more likely to abuse taser use than they would abuse firearms since the risk of major damage and subsequent investigations following firearm abuse is greater than when a taser is used.

Inconsistent Codes of Conduct

Inconsistent policy controls governing how law enforcement officers can use tasers has also increased the numbers of misconducts involving this device. The inconsistency in codes of conduct is elaborated by research findings by the Department of Justice which indicate that while 60% of Law enforcement agencies allow officers to user tasers when subjects tense and pull when an officer tries to handcuff them and 75% of agencies allow taser use if a suspect flees (Holder, at al., 2010). A lack of consistency in codes of conducts means that some police officers lack a clear understanding of how to use the weapons and therefore rely on their discretionary powers.

Difficulty Charging Police officers of Misconduct

When allegations of police misuse of taser are brought out, it is very difficult to get a conviction of the officers accused of the misconduct. The difficulty in part lies from the fact that the law governing use of police force is incomplete and indeterminate. Police officers are afforded broad powers to carry out their duties and it is very hard to charge a law enforcement officer with use of excessive force in the line of duty since it is very hard to prove that the officer had malicious intent.

Harmon (2008) elaborates that the Fourth Amendment doctrine by the Supreme Court which regulates the use of force by law enforcement officers is grossly inadequate. Champion (2001) suggests that the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes police discretion is responsible for the misconduct by some police officers. As a result of this unclear mission, law enforcement officers do not have a well defined consistent code of conduct that they can rely on while performing their jobs.

The Code of silence

A significant norm in police culture is the “code of silence” which is defined by Kaariainen et al. (2008) as an understanding among police officers that they are not expected to uncover any misconduct they notice among each other or in the organization. The code of silence is so strong that it is difficult or even impossible to discover the scale of misconducts involving taser abuse by directly asking police personnel about them. It is therefore impossible to estimate the incident of these misconducts among the police since self reporting rarely occurs.

Inadequate training

Misuse of tasers results from inadequate training of officers on how to use the devices. The amount of time spent by most agencies training officers on taser use is marginal. Holder, et al. (2011) reveals that on average, most agencies spend 5 hours training their officers on how to use these devices. Considering the increased reliance on tasers to subdue suspects, 5 hours are inadequate for most officers to gain a good understanding on how to employ this device in the line of duty.

Discussion

Police Misconduct: Use of Force

Law enforcement officers are expected to conduct themselves according to high standards and their conduct is supposed to be above reproach. However, from their creation, law enforcement agencies have battled with the problem of controlling unprofessional and even illegal action by their officers.

This unprofessional and/or illegal behavior is broadly referred to as categorized as “police misconduct”. Police misconduct is defined as “any inappropriate behavior on the part of any law enforcement officer that is either illegal or immoral or both” (Champion, 2001, p.2).

The range of activities that can be defined as police misconduct is wide and it includes; perjuring on reports and in court, committing a crime, using excessive force, accepting bribes, and failing to report misconduct on a fellow officer. While all of this forms of police misconduct are serious and may result in a miscarriage of justice the use of excessive force is considered to be more important to citizens.

Employment of physical force legitimately by the police to secure compliance remains to be one of the most problematic issues facing police officers. Police officers are legally sanctioned to control the behavior of citizens by use of physical force. Harmon (2008) emphasizes that police officers are not only officially sanctioned to use force by they are in most cases not allowed to retreat from potentially dangerous situations and they are trained to expect to resort to force.

However, in democratic societies such as the US, police use of force is regulated by national laws as well as policies by the individual law enforcement agencies. Police violence is in most instances catalyzed by the suspect. For example, during an arrest, the officer is likely to begin by issuing verbal commands for the suspect to stop and submit to a physical inspection or handcuffing.

While most suspects will comply with the verbal order, some will resist and this may provoke a forcible response from the law enforcement officer. Police officers are expected to escalate or deescalate the levels of force they should use on a suspect to match the level of threat that the particular suspect poses. This escalation or de-escalation gives the officer a lot of discretion since it is based on “objective reasonableness” and not any solid measure.

Excessive force is force that is “greater than what would be required to achieve the lawful aims of the officer (Travis, 2011, p.190). The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in the year 2009, citizens’ complaints about excessive force by law enforcement officers were common with 6.6 complaints occurring for every 100 full-time sworn officers (Travis, 2011).

The prevalence of excessive force incidents is as a result of the discretionary nature of decisions to employ force. In most cases, police officers feel that their use of force is justified as they seek to protect themselves and the state’s interests. Travis (2011) notes that there is a general resentment by police officers over their decisions to employ force being questioned by civilians or the administrators in their department.

Taser Use

Tasers are a type of controlled electronic devices that operate by causing neuro-muscular incapacitation which leads to a temporal loss of motor function by the victim (Wilson, 2005). The prevalence of taser use among law enforcement agencies in the US is great with over 11,000 law enforcement agencies employing the use of this weapon as of 2011 (Cho, 2012).

While the taser technology has been used by law enforcement agencies since 1974, the weapon has gained popularity with majority of law enforcement agencies all over the USA in the past two decades. Tasers have been embraced by many law enforcement agencies which see this weapon as a tool that increases the safety of both the officer and the citizen by significantly decreasing the need to resort to using of deadly force (DeLone & Liddie, 2009).

Hall (2009) elaborates that law enforcement officers typically have a hard time gaining control of a violent or disoriented individual whose unpredictability increases the risk both to the officer and the public. The taser can be used as a tool for saving the lives of both police officers and suspects with research demonstrating up to 75 percent declines in rates of officer injury in law enforcement agencies that use tasers (Holder, et al., 2011).

According to taser studies, the use of these weapons reduces the likelihood of an officer discharging a firearm against suspects who are openly aggressive and therefore decreases the injury rates for offenders (Cho, 2012). Such statistics have made many consider the taser to be the test less-lethal weapon of choice for use by law enforcement officers. While the taser results in extreme pain for the victim as the 50,000 Volts of electrical charge pass through their body, the health effects of the devise are not adverse.

A significant advantage of the taser is that it does not rely on pain compliance which makes it effective against people experiencing a “mind-body” disconnect. These groups of people include highly intoxicated subjects, and those with a mental illness. Without the taser, police officers would have to result to lethal force to incapacitate these groups since they are unconscious of pain.

As the increase in taser use has occurred throughout the country, there have been growing concerns over the misuse of these devices. A report by Amnesty International in 2004 on the user of tasers claimed that these devices could encourage sadistic acts by police officers and because the use and effects of the taser were not researched, a moratorium should be imposed on tasers (Miller, 2008). No moratorium has been imposed on tasers and the contrary, more agencies have endorsed the use of these weapons.

Reasons for Misconduct

There is a myriad of reasons why some police officers all over the country engage in misconduct. Some of the incidents of police misconduct regarding the taser are as a result of ignorance of policies on the use of these devices. Bernstein (2011) reports that in Portland, Oregon, police officers tased two men who had already surrendered and were in the process of being handcuffed.

The two men were not offering any active aggression and the tasing incident was not justified since the suspects did not pose any threat either to the police or to other citizens. The action by the officers was a clear violation of bureau policy but in their defense, the officers claimed that they were not aware of the policy on taser use (Bernstein, 2011).

Another reason for misconduct in the use of the taser is that the policies which the police officers have to follow are strictly formulated at the top of the organization with little or no input from the officers who are taxed with implementing the policies. A report by Holder (2011) reveals that the policies on taser use in many law enforcement agencies are made at an administrative level and the police officers are required to follow them.

Kaariainen et al. (2008) state that while police culture is heterogeneous in nature and work-related practices and attitudes vary tremendously, there is a tendency among law enforcement officers to use force in street patrol and crime investigation. It is assumed that the lack of consulting with police officers during policy formulation by the agency leads to reduced support for these guidelines.

Some officers are also of the opinion that if they use the taser to inflict pain on the criminal, he/she will be deterred from committing crime under the knowledge that if caught in future, immediate and severe punishment would be inflicted. Such a rationale comes from the notion that deterrence can only be achieved if there is severe and swift punishment following a violation (Chambliss, 2011).

From this assumption, inflicting pain using the taser is seen as an immediate mean of punishing the offenders and reducing the probability that they will perpetuate the same offenses in future. Such tactics downplay the importance of the court system and they violate the civil liberties of the suspect since a person is supposed to be treated as innocent until they are proven to be guilty through the judicial system.

A significant cause of inappropriate use of the taser is the police subculture. Just like any other organization, the police departments develop their own culture which helps the officers to cope with feelings of isolation from society. The police subculture values secrecy and emphasis is placed on loyalty to other police officers.

There is also a general mistrust of the public and officers turn to each other for moral and emotional support. Kaariainen et al. (2008) demonstrate the sensitivity of the misconduct issue among police by noting that in a research project in the USA designed to study police integrity, the concept of police misconduct was defined as “‘the normative inclination among police to resist temptations to abuse the rights and privileges of their occupation” since the research group felt that approaching the issue directly would yield unreliable results.

Misconduct is also caused by the biases that exist among individual officers. While the hiring process by many law enforcement agencies aims to exclude officers who have extreme biases, there are still a few officers who hold prejudicial attitudes or beliefs (Chambliss, 2011). For example, research indicates that some law enforcement officers view certain citizens (drug users, prostitutes, gang members, and career criminals) as second-class citizens who should not be protected or treated with consideration.

Manis and Kimberly (2008) reveal that officers who have not had higher education are more likely to engage in prejudicial behavior than those who have had education above the high school diploma. Such officers are therefore incapable of separating their bias from their obligation to act professionally and treat this class of citizens in a fair and just manner. Chambliss (2011) indicates that due to this bias, officers can single out these groups for harassment and brutal treatment.

Research also indicates that racial discrimination plays a part in police misconduct and specifically the use of excessive force. Travis (2011) documents that white police officers who displayed racially prejudiced attitudes were more likely to support inappropriate use of force against citizens than non-prejudiced.

Police burnout and cynicism also result in misconduct. Burnouts occur because of the strenuous nature of police works. They have to work at odd hours and respond to emergencies which are at times very dangerous. Officers are also often called upon to deal with situations that can be depressing and even emotionally traumatizing (Chambliss, 2011).

This leads to both physical and emotional exhaustion by the officers and they may end up reacting in an emotionally charged manner in their encounters with suspects as opposed to reacting in a neutral and detached manner as they deal with the suspect. Cynicism occurs when police officers are convinced of the guilt of an individual but lack the evidence to prove it.

The officers may therefore be forced to witness the acquittal of individuals who they perceive to be guilty. Such occurrences may lead officers to develop a cynical attitude towards the criminal justice system and they may therefore be less inclined to follow the policies of their departments.

The code of silence among law enforcement officers also exacerbates the misuse of tasers since officers are not inclined to report each other when this misconduct occurs. The loyalty of police officers to their colleagues comes about due to the lack of confidence by most law enforcement officers in the citizen and the police administration. A police officers’ trust in the citizen is significantly low due to a number of reasons.

To begin with, some of the citizens that the officer is constantly interacting with are hostile and may even present physical danger to the officer. Another thing is that the law enforcement agent is expected to control the behavior of citizens and he should suspect their motivations in the case of a criminal investigation (Kaariainen et al., 2008). Police officers also interact with their administrators and supervisors who sometimes view the officers with suspicion due to the ambiguity of the police work.

Negative Impact of Misconduct

Misconducts result in many negative outcomes for the law enforcement agencies as well as citizens. To begin with, misconduct reduces the effectiveness of the police force as they have to deal with litigations. While police officers are supposed to enforce criminal laws, misconduct has led to enforcement officers being subjected to civil litigation.

Kinnaird (2007) notes that civil litigation has increased in frequency and officers and agencies now spend more time and money defending themselves instead of their community which greatly decreases the efficiency of the police force in fulfilling its primary mandate of law enforcement.

Police officers operate within a society and the use of the misuse of force comes at a significant societal cost. The inappropriate of the taser by police officers lead to significant negative consequences that include unnecessary injuries to the suspect, citizen complains, civil liability, and a distrust of the police by the community.

The lack of repercussions following taser abuse by officers leads to even more abuse in future. Due to the police subculture, officers are likely to protect each other from investigation. When law enforcement leaders (such as police chiefs and sheriffs) downplay the problem of misconduct or even protect their officers from allegations of taser abuse, then the police officers are likely to continue with this misconduct. This makes the already day situation worse and further degrades the relationship between the police and the community they are supposed to serve.

Misuse of tasers may have adverse health impacts on the suspect and it can even cause their death (Wilson, 2005). Some law enforcement officers engage in multiple activations when using the taser to subdue a suspect. This amounts to police misconduct since the practice is not in line with accepted national guidelines. Holder et al. (2011) warns that while taser exposure is usually safe, risks or serious injury and even death to the subject may result from continuous or repeated shocks.

Addressing Misconduct

Use of force may be unavoidable for police officers and most law enforcement agencies have a “use of force continuum” where officers are taught what kind of force levels would be suitable in varying circumstances. Additional training is required to ensure that appropriate police practices are met by all officers.

Training should consider the changing role of policing as a result of social evolution. While policing in the 1960s and 1970s emphasized on firearms use and use of physical force to elicit the compliance of the offender, today’s policing requires more social skills (Kinnaird, 2007). Ideally, policy should aim to control people by winning their compliance with law and ordinances without the use of force.

The evident ambiguity in defining justified and unjustified taser user affects the ability to accurately report incidents of misconduct using tasers. There is therefore no accurate data on the current trend of unwarranted use of tasers by officers but media reports indicate that this practice is on the rise. Clear rules which include the input of police officers create a basis for trust between the administration and employees and also express commonly shared rules and values which the police officers are more likely to follow.

The taser is a weapon and as with all weapons, some risks are associated with using it. However, Hall (2009) suggests that if it is used in train hands, it can be a tool which can assist law enforcement officers to maintain law and order and increase the safety of the citizens and also the police officers. The Portland case where police shot at suspects who posed no physical threat to anyone demonstrates that law enforcement officers need to be given better training on taser use to avoid unintentional misconduct (Bernstein, 2011).

Champion (2001) states that devising better screening mechanisms during the recruitment of new law enforcement officers can help to prevent those who are inclined toward misconduct from becoming sworn officers. By minimizing or preventing the hiring of officers who will likely engage in misconduct, the number of police misconduct cases will reduce significantly. For example, the administration of psychological tests which will help to identify sadistic and depressive applicants.

A lack of emphasis on procedure has also been blamed on the increase in police misconduct in many agencies. Kinnaird (2007) defines procedures as “particular or consistent ways of doing something” and he suggests that while law enforcement policies are emphasized on and deviating from these policies can implicate an officer and department on a criminal and a civil level, deviation from a departmental procedure may not be detrimental to the officer.

Kaariainen, et al. (2008) states that it is important for the law enforcement agency management to “clearly put the rules of integrity and also communicate those rules and the reasons for them to their employees” (p.88). Police officers are less likely to abuse tasers when they have to stick to well elaborated procedures when dealing with suspects.

Conclusion

The increased use of tasers by law enforcement agencies has made the problem of taser misuse significant in our country. This report has acknowledged that use of force is an integral part of police work and law enforcement agencies must be allowed to resort to force to oblige suspects who are not complying with laws and orders to do so. Abuse of the taser negates the positive role that the taser can play in ensuring the safety of citizens and police officers.

Lack of proper training and unclear policies on taser use is partly responsible for the misconduct by law enforcement officers. This misconduct has proved to be expensive for law enforcement agencies as they deal with litigations and it has also resulted in reduced trust by the public. Policies should be enacted to reduce the potential for misconduct among officers and therefore reduce the number of litigations.

Recommendations

Based on the findings of this research, the following recommendations are offered on how to reduce police misconduct with regard to the use of tasers

  • It is recommended that police departments come up a well defined and consistent code of conduct that among other things clearly defines what constitutes police discretion.
  • Police departments should develop and implement training programs that go beyond state-mandated levels to teach officers on how to properly use tasers.
  • Law enforcement officers should be involved in the formulation of policies and their input should be given high consideration since they are the ones who must implement the policy.
  • There needs to be an acknowledgment of the inherent biases among police officers and implementation of training to alter it. Better screening measures should also be used to prevent individuals with extreme bias from joining the police force.

References

Bernstein, M. (2011). Portland officers use Tasers on 2 men who had surrendered, costing city almost $140,000 to settle lawsuits. Web.

Chambliss, W.J. (2011). Police and Law Enforcement. NY: Sage.

Champion, J.D. (2001). Police Misconduct in America: A Reference Handbook. Boston: ABC-CLIO.

Cho, L.H. (2012). Criminal Investigation. Texas: Cengage Learning.

DeLone, G.J. & Liddie, M.T. (2009). The application and use of TASERs by a Midwestern police agency. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 11(4), 414–428.

Government Accountability Office. (2005). Taser Weapons: Use of tasers by selected law enforcement agencies. Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, Committee on Government Reform, House of Representatives. Web.

Hall, C.A. (2009). Public risk from tasers: Unacceptably high or low enough to accept? JCMU, 11(1), 84-86.

Harmon, R.A. (2008). When is police violence justified? Northwestern University Law Review, 102(3), 1119-1188.

Holder, E.H., Robinson, L.O. and Laub. J.H. (2011). Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs National Institute of Justice.

Kaariainen, J., Tomi, L., Ahti, L., & Joycelyn, P. (2008). The ‘Code of Silence’: Are Self-Report Surveys a Viable Means for Studying Police Misconducts? Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, 9(1), 86–96.

Kinnaird, B.A. (2007). Exploring liability profiles: a proximate cause analysis of police misconduct: part II. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 9(3), 201–213.

Manis, J., Carol, A.A., & Kimberly, D.H. (2008). Exploring the impact of police officer education level on allegations of police misconduct. International Journal of Police Science and Management, 10 (4), 509–523.

Miller, M.E. (2008). Examining the Effect of Organizational Policy Change on Taser Utilizations. NY: ProQuest.

Travis, L.F. (2011). Introduction to Criminal Justice. Boston: Elsevier.

Wilson, L. (2005). Police prone restraint methods and taser-related deaths. Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report, 8(1), 229-239.