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Police Expert: Tasers Should Be Used Only When Suspects Are Threats


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced last week that the city's police force is going to start using more Tasers and less lethal force. The mayor presented a path toward what he calls a new reality in Chicago policing in response to a series of fatal shootings this past year. The Chicago Police Department will double the number of Tasers at its disposal and train officers to use them. But our next guest says the evidence on whether Tasers actually reduce violent encounters is inconclusive. Peter Moskos is a former Baltimore police officer and now an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He joins us on the line from New York. Welcome to the program.

PETER MOSKOS: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: Peter, what do we know about other police departments that have expanded their use of Tasers? Because other departments have tried this. How does it work?

MOSKOS: It always brings risks. But it is not a guaranteed nonlethal use of force. And that's part of the problem, is how the use of the Taser is regulated and how officers are trained. All too often, Tasers are not used on somebody with a knife who won't drop it, which is the perfect use for the Taser. It's pretty much what the Taser was designed for. But what happens is it becomes a tool for compliance. Somebody who is not a threat but is also not complying gets tased. And that, I think, is something that we should be wary of.

MARTIN: So you're saying that in some situations, using...

MOSKOS: In most situations.

MARTIN: In most situations, using Tasers can actually increase the number of confrontations or the level of violence that happens in a confrontation.

MOSKOS: Well, it certainly changes the confrontation. There are studies showing the overall, Tasers do reduce injuries because it prevents officers from going hands-on. And sometimes officers need to go hands-on. And that risk is part of the job. The shame is that when someone gets tased and they - you know, they land on concrete; they lose their teeth. And occasionally - not often, but occasionally - they die. And then you have to ask, well, what did they die for? Simply because they wouldn't put their hands behind their back - because they wouldn't get out of a car? Most Taser uses are in these compliance situations. And I think they need to be much more - the use of Taser has to be much more strictly confined to places where suspects are threats.

MARTIN: So is it a training issue? I mean, how do you measure how effective these things can be in actually reducing the number of police shootings? Because Chicago - we're talking about - Chicago is the reason for this conversation. In 2010, that police department expanded the use of Tasers, and there was not an immediate decrease in police shootings.

MOSKOS: No, and I may be unaware of some other studies out there. But I - generally, I don't think you do see a reduction in lethal use of force with Tasers. It becomes an additional use of force, most often. I mean, New York City, which very much restricts Taser use - only sergeants and above generally have Tasers - has a very low rate of officer-involved shootings. So you can lower shootings. You can lower police-involved shootings without resorting to Taser use. And New York City has shown that very well.

MARTIN: Beyond Tasers, what changes can be made to deescalate these kinds of conflicts?

MOSKOS: It's always going to be tough. And nothing is ever going to be perfect. And that's important to say because the job does have a lot of variabilities (ph). But there are training methods about verbal de-escalation. There is just a different mentality officers can have. Officers tend to have a lot of time on their hands, even in these situations. If someone doesn't comply the first time, you can keep talking to them. Now, eventually, sometimes that doesn't work. Nothing works all the time. But there has to be a greater patience before police officers say - 'cause, well, police know that they're going to deal with noncompliant individuals. So it very much then becomes a question of how they deal with them when those situations arise.

MARTIN: May I ask for your professional opinion about the mayor's decision in Chicago? I mean, that city has just been stricken by so much gun violence. The mayor has proposed doubling down on the use of Tasers. Is it a good idea?

MOSKOS: I'm mildly against it. It's not going to reduce gun violence. If someone has a gun, police officers can and should shoot that individual. You don't play games, then, with a Taser. You also have a problem, a lot of times, where Tasers don't work as intended. The barbs don't go in. And this is more anecdotal, but a lot of bad police-involved shootings we've seen recently first involved the misuse of a Taser because once you attempt to use a Taser and it doesn't achieve the desired effect, I think officers get a little freaked out, quite frankly, and then are much more willing to use lethal force. Tasers are not the panacea here.

MARTIN: Peter Moskos of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Thanks so much for talking with us.

MOSKOS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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