One of the great things about training all over the country is that I have the opportunity to constantly meet new people and learn from their experiences. This usually consists of hearing stories of real calls or incidents they have navigated. These stories often include lessons learned as well as colossal failures. Based on these experiences and lessons, I have compiled the top five things I believe you should consider before deploying a taser on a person in mental health crisis.
1. Use of a Taser is not de-escalation
Deploying a Taser will not be viewed as a de-escalation of force, no matter the outcome. As I said, I’m lucky to meet awesome people while traveling and learning about other trainings. One of the newest ideas I’ve heard is if you use force to neutralize a potential or active threat, then it is consequently a de-escalation of the situation. There are numerous reasons that logic is flawed, and I will quickly explain the two main reasons.
First, it assumes that the attempted use of force will be successful. Nothing we do is 100% effective – if it were, we would only do that one thing (See #2). Second is that the general public does not understand the technicalities of de-escalating a situation like a law enforcement officer or lawyer does. When the world hears on the news that an officer Tasered someone, they instantly perceive it as an escalation of force.
2. Have a backup plan
Tasers have a high failure rate on their first iteration. They are extremely effective tools for law enforcement and prevent both officer injury and suspect injury, so I am not condemning Taser. In fact I think every patrol officer should have one.
A study conducted by Florida Gulf Coast University for the National Institute for Justice found that out of 2113 first iteration deployments, 1264 of them were effective. That is about a 59.8% success rate, which is only a little better than a coin flip, which is 51% when you pick heads. This slightly increases to 68.1% for a second integration. You can find the whole 104-page explanation here.
3. Consider the consequences
Any rapport that you have built with the person in crisis will be reset to zero once they are Tased. I get it, you have to do what you have to do, and a mental health crisis is never an excuse to hurt others. Even so, being Tased is not a pleasant experience, and it will evoke an emotional response from the person on the other end of the probes. You will need to rebuild your relationship and trust from that point forward.
4. Do you have the right tool for the job
You should never use a Taser in a deadly force situation unless you have some form of lethal cover, preferably from another competent officer. Leave the double fisting for weekends with your buddies. Holding your firearm with one hand and your taser with the other is asking for trouble. This article can explain and introduce you to sympathetic trigger pulls click here.
5. Tasers are viewed as a significant use of force
When Tasers first became available to law enforcement, many departments categorized them with OC Spray in the use of force continuum. Most departments now have it categorized as striking force, which is the same as a steel baton. Over time, the view on Taser’s classification changed for many reasons. There are lawsuits concerning a specific heart disorder called excited delirium that are connected to Taser.
There are the injuries that occur, but not from the Taser. Injuries often happen from the physical fall resulting from your skeletal muscle system being electronically taken over. Then, there is the case law. A well-known Fourth Circuit of Appeals case classified it as serious injurious force. You can find a great dissection of that case here.
Utilizing a Taser when dealing with a person in mental health crisis is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. It is a tool on your belt that should be used when appropriate. However, it is not a magic device that will solve all your problems in seven seconds. In fact, it may make things worse if you are not strategic in your utilization, and I would never bet my life on it, metaphorically or literally. What do you think the go-to tool for officers confronting a person in mental health crisis should be? Let me know in the comments.