What is a taser? A nonsense acronym standing for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” Basically, it’s a range of devices that use two “probes” and a battery to create an arc of electricity. This arc acts on the body’s electric impulses, and rather than using pain, disables their muscles without permanent injury – although it is quite painful. This can kill people, though very rarely. It is carried on an officer’s “Sam Brown” belt. In the US, it would be accompanied by a typical pistol, spare magazines, a baton, pepper spray or mace, handcuffs, a radio and flashlight. In the UK, the taser may only be accompanied by the baton and a radio. Many officers aren’t issued tasers, but the product, in it’s “stun gun,” pistol and shotgun cartridge forms has become iconic of police use.
What is a taser normally considered? Less-lethal. Not non-lethal but less lethal. If you stop to consider it, nothing is truly non-lethal, and the definition can’t stand up in a courtroom. A pencil isn’t a weapon, but it can kill someone. A taser is purpose-build to avoid killing persons, going so far as being rated to not affect pacemakers, but they’re not designed to be used against the elderly, children or others with special conditions. In short, it’s a very specialized tool mainly designed to be used against healthy, aggressive attackers that do not need to be killed.
A telescoping baton, designed to inflict pain but not break bones, or an irritant spray like OC spray (pepper spray) or mace (tear gas) which distract the assailant, and even specialized “sock” and baton rounds for grenade launchers and shotguns make up this “less lethal” category as well. A sock round can kill if it hits someone in the head from close range, mace can cause a delicate respiratory track to swell up to the point of suffocation.
So when are less-lethal weapons used? An attacker could come at the officer unarmed, or they may have a mental condition that precludes normal fighting in defense. Sometimes, a gun just isn’t the answer. Police must adhere to a policy called the “Use of Force.” If someone offers no aggression, less lethal, manhandling and physical harm is not appropriate. If they are aggressive, it is the officer’s decision to use less lethal options. When life is threatened by extreme behavior, presence of a weapon or automobile, they are allowed to use a gun. Everything a cop does has to be justified later in court, tons of paperwork and to their colleagues. Cops really don’t have much of a margin of error, especially with lethal force.
The typical pistol-type taser allows the officer to put down the attacker from a distance, and hit them with additional shocks if necessary. Taser technology is relatively inexpensive and user friendly, making it a viable alternative to a skill-based weapon like a baton, or something more drastic like a firearm. Yet, it falls into the very wide spectrum where lethal force is not necessary but mere commands don’t work – so it becomes a workhorse for cops confronted with difficult scenarios.
A taser is also immensely useful in places where a firearm cannot be used, such as a large theme park, on board an aircraft, or even by a civilian to defend against a much stronger attacker – it has in many roles replaced pepper spray and batons.
Changing the definition of a taser to a “lethal weapon” would also mean some pretty drastic changes to their use. No longer would a taser be an option for civilians with restrictive laws, or an ever-present option for cops who have a tough scenario. Once something becomes a lethal tool for a cop, it’s relegated to a bin of other equipment that one hopes never has to be used – 90% of the time a cop is working, their primary concern isn’t a gunfight. A taser would no longer be a very effective tool always accessible to the officer, but something seldom used and languishing on the belt – by threat of law.
Tasers are effective pieces of equipment that require just as much training as a gun or baton, and need special consideration when used. But throwing labels just because they’re open to the same weaknesses as any other tool isn’t the most intelligent approach. How can anyone expect an officer to do their job to the fullest when responding with appropriate force may brandish them with attempted murder?