Tasers are often cited as a crucial tool in combating police violence in America, with proponents claiming that the “less lethal” weapons can help departments avoid deadly encounters.
But the police killing of Daunte Wright in Minnesota – in which officials say an officer mistook her gun for her Taser – has resurfaced criticism of stun guns.
Experts and advocates have raised several major concerns about the mass deployment of Tasers in recent years: that police mistake them for guns (often in cases where no force or violence is justified, and where that explanation is disputed); that stun guns aren’t used as alternatives to guns and instead lead to increased brutality and escalate encounters; and that the electroshocks themselves can be deadly.
“Cities are spending millions of dollars on this technology that is not saving any lives and is just expanding the repertoire of violence available to local police,” said Alex Vitale, a Brooklyn College sociology professor and policing expert. “Tasers are used to punish people … and it has led to a lot of abuse and death.”
Stun guns have exploded in popularity among law enforcement since the 2000s. In the US, police departments overwhelmingly rely on Tasers, with 94% of police agencies now using this type of stun gun, though not all officers carry them in departments that own them. Cities have often sought to purchase more Tasers following police shootings, including in Philadelphia, where the police agency recently asked for $14m for stun guns in the wake of a high-profile killing.
Philadelphia police officials said Tasers would be a “potentially lifesaving tool”, with a councilman saying: “The unnecessary death … was just the latest example of how crucial it is for police to have adequate training and equipment, in order to avoid excessive escalation.”
But in the last 20 years, there have been at least 15 cases like the Wright tragedy in which police claimed they accidentally fired bullets instead of a stun gun – three of which led to convictions, according to the New York Times.
One of the best known examples is the 2009 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, 22, on an Oakland train platform. The officer in that shooting, Johannes Mehserle, alleged in court that he meant to draw his stun gun. In 2002, an officer in Madera, California claimed she meant to Taser 24-year-old Everardo Torres, who was sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car, but fatally shot him instead.
“Tasers are not a solution,” said Oscar Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, known as Uncle Bobby X. In the California killings and the Wright case, it was clear that officers had no justification for even pulling a Taser, he said, noting that the young men were not a threat. Wright was allegedly pulled over for expired plates last week, and Grant was on the ground and unarmed. If the officer had Tased Wright as she claimed was her intent, it would have still been excessive force and dangerous, he said.
And even when police have Tasers, they are too conditioned to use their guns when they perceive a threat, Johnson said: “When officers are in a so-called ‘stressful situation’, they go on autopilot and pull their service revolvers … That’s why we are always in danger of being killed from a simple traffic stop.”
Tasers’ deadly record
When police do deploy Tasers, the consequences can be deadly, too. A Reuters investigation documented more than 1,000 cases between 2000 and 2018 where people died after being Tasered, with the electroshock formally cited as a cause of death or factor in more than 150 cases. In addition to cardiac arrests, Taser victims have also died or suffered serious injuries as a result of falling after being shocked.
“Tasers were originally touted as these ‘non-lethal’ weapons,” said Hamid Khan, organizer with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, who has scrutinized the LA police department’s Taser use. But once accounts of fatalities emerged, police and manufacturers began to acknowledge the potential for death, labeling them “less lethal”, he said. “We’ve always said they are lethal and there to murder and cause extreme harm.”
On 14 August last year, LAPD officers were responding to reports of an alleged burglary attempt when they came upon Daniel Rivera, 37, standing near a ravine. Body-camera footage showed he hopped a fence into the wash, and was lying face down on the ground, largely motionless, as police approached.
Even though he was unarmed and not moving, one officer kneeled on his back, two others handcuffed him, one shoved his face into the ground, and another shocked him with a Taser four times, causing his body to convulse, according to a lawsuit and footage. He appeared to call for help and scream in pain, but officers kept him largely face down for about seven minutes.
One officer can be heard saying Rivera was acting “like a fish out of water”, another said Rivera’s condition was “worse than Covid”, and one complained that he “got me all muddy and shit”.
“They used so much force on someone who wasn’t even fighting back and did not have a weapon,” Elisabeth Barragan, the mother of Rivera’s son, told the Guardian.
Rivera died on the scene, and the coroner ruled his death a homicide, saying he had experienced cardiac arrest and that “electromuscular disruption” (meaning the Taser) was among the factors.
“This shouldn’t have happened. Not even animals deserve this type of treatment,” Rivera’s mother, Silvia Imelda Rivera, said in Spanish. She added that she couldn’t bring herself to watch the video of the Tasing and wanted her son to be remembered as joyful person: “He was always uplifting to others, always happy, regardless of any obstacle in his life.”
An LAPD spokesperson declined to comment.
A spokesperson for Axon Enterprise, the sole manufacturer of Tasers, said in an email that it was wrong to blame its weapons for fatalities: “There is often other uses of force used either before or after [Taser] use, and a multitude of circumstances that may have caused or contributed to the death.” The statement cited heart disease and drug use as common factors.
‘The reforms haven’t worked’
While Tasers are technically less lethal than firearms, data suggests that police aren’t using them as an alternative to guns. One 2018 study on Chicago found that when the department expanded Taser access to its officers, it did not lead to any decrease in shootings. Instead, officers were using Tasers as an alternative to less serious tactics, such as physical holds.
“Tasers are used to make somebody do something, like get out of a car,” said John Hamasaki, a criminal defense lawyer and member of the San Francisco police commission. “Using a deadly weapon should not be authorized under those circumstances.”
He cited a 2009 University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), study that aggregated data from 50 cities and found an increase in in-custody deaths and fatal shootings by police in the first year after departments acquired Tasers.
Experts believe that’s because Tasers increase violent use of force, rather than preventing it: “Tasers are being used essentially as a torture device when people are perceived as not complying,” said V James DeSimone, an LA civil rights lawyer and attorney for the Rivera family.
Even the threat or sight of a Taser can exacerbate conflicts when police are interacting with someone experiencing mental illness or intoxication, according to experts.
Last September, Orange county sheriff’s officers with the department’s “homeless outreach team” approached an unarmed man, Kurt Reinhold, with a Taser drawn, according to a lawsuit. Police alleged he had jaywalked and eventually wrestled him to the ground and fatally shot him.
“He had not committed a crime, not hurt anyone and was not armed, and an officer from the outset had his Taser out,” said the family’s attorney, Neil Gehlawat. “It was a form of escalation.”
Axon disputed claims that Tasers increase police violence. A spokesperson pointed to a 2011 National Institute of Justice report, which suggested that the adoption of stun guns was linked to a decline in suspect injury rates in multiple cities, including a 30% decrease in Austin. That report, however, also raised concerns that the “ease of use and popularity” of Tasers could lead to “overuse” or “inappropriate” use.
Tasers are “not risk free” but are “the safest and most effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement”, Axon added.
Activists say cities should be reducing police contact with civilians, starting with removing armed officers from traffic enforcement and other services – instead of giving them more money for new weapons or training or other reforms that have failed to curb brutality.
“The reforms haven’t changed the way that especially Black and brown folks experience policing,” said Jenn M Jackson, political science professor at Syracuse University. “We are still seeing the same violence … Whatever tools that police officers have at their disposal will be used to physically harm those people, whether it’s a billy club, hose, a dog, a Taser or a gun.”