All About TASERS and Electronic Control Devices

The Invention, Function, Use and Controversy of the Taser

Police Launch The New Taser Gun
••• Graeme Robertson / Getty Images

In nearly every industry, technology continues to change the way people do their jobs. Whether you're a journalist, a soldier, or an accountant, your counterparts from even a few years ago may have a hard time recognizing the world in which you work today because of the incredible advancements in technology.

Police officers are no different. The tools law enforcement officers carry today are in many ways a far cry from those they used in the not-so-distant past—with wearable cameras, computers in patrol cars, and algorithms that can predict crime.

Few tools, however, have had quite the impact or come with as much controversy as the electronic control device (ECD), more commonly known as the Taser.

The concept of the electronic control device is centered on the idea that potentially violent confrontations can be brought to a relatively safe conclusion without the use of deadly force whenever possible. The ECD is not intended to replace a firearm, but to provide a safer means of dealing with non-deadly force situations. The best-known and most successful ECD to date is the Taser, manufactured and distributed by Taser International.

The Invention of the Taser: Science Fiction Comes to Life

Developed in the 1960s by John Cover, the Taser gun is the embodiment of science fiction becoming science fact. It differed from other stun guns and electroshock weapons in that it could be fired and deployed at a distance. The weapon was directly influenced by the popular Tom Swift science fiction stories, namely Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. The word "Taser" is, in fact, an acronym for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.

Unlike the fictional model, the actual Taser doesn't fire bolts of electricity or shoot through walls without leaving holes. It does, however, provide police and private citizens with a means of self-defense that can mitigate or eliminate the chances of serious injury or death, both to themselves and their assailants.

Not Quite Ready For Prime Time

The first model, invented directly by Cover, used gun powder to launch electrified darts. Because of this, it was classified as a firearm and did not see widespread use. Police agencies and private citizens looking for non-lethal or less-lethal alternatives to guns were understandably not interested in what they perceived to be just another gun and potential liability.

TASERS Change the Game

In the early 1990s, brothers Tom and Rick Smith approached Cover, looking to develop a means to reduce deaths resulting from violent confrontation. The group created the Air Taser, a weapon that fired darts using air rather than gun powder and thus shed its firearm classification. The new deployment method allowed it to stand on its own as a non-lethal intermediate weapon.

A newer, more effective and versatile device was soon developed, and the law enforcement community began to see potential benefits to the device. By 1999, agencies across the country began to purchase the weapons for their officers.

As it began to see widespread use among police agencies, the Taser was quickly heralded as a revolutionary new way to protect both officers and suspects. Many hoped that line-of-duty officer deaths and injuries from violent encounters would significantly decrease and police shootings would be reduced.

Tasers, Controversy, and Confusion

It was not long after, however, that controversy quickly arose as law enforcement officers, the news media and the public at large all seemed to be confused at the role, purpose, and function of this futuristic stun gun.

Reports of excessive force, over-zealous cops and even deaths by Taser soon began to make their way into the public forum. Stories of children, vulnerable adults and the elderly being "shocked" by stun guns that shot 50,000 volts through their bodies began to give Taser a bad name.

Policies, Standards, and Statistics Save the Day

Police departments across the country quickly responded by creating more restrictive policies that governed the use of electronic control devices.

State legislatures passed laws requiring training and certification in their use, and Taser International continued to encourage the collection of data on the use of the Taser. These measures ultimately lead to wider acceptance of the device among law enforcement agencies and have cemented the ECD's place as an indispensable law enforcement tool.

How the Taser Works

The Taser serves two distinct functions during a use of force encounter. Its primary and preferred use is as an incapacitation device that allows officers to maintain a safe distance while rendering a threat incapable of fighting back.

Though the technology is advanced, the concept is simple. When fired, the Taser projects two metal darts, called probes, by electrically charging a cartridge of compressed gas. The probes remain connected to the device through thin copper wires that carry an electric charge to the target.

The probes often enter the target's skin, though they can be just as effective if they become lodged in clothing as long as they remain close to the body. Contact is far less important than probe spread. The wider the spread, the more effective the incapacitation.

Electro-Muscular Incapacitation

As the probes travel toward a subject, they spread. When the probes reach their target, they send electric pulses between each other, which disrupt neuron communications between the subjects' muscles and the brain. When this happens, most subjects' muscles become incredibly tense.

The net effect is that the target subjects become incapable of engaging muscle groups for the duration of the charge cycle. This effect is known as neuromuscular incapacitation. As soon as the cycle is ended, however, the effect goes away.

ECD Charging Cycles

A single cycle is typically timed to last 5 seconds, though an officer can stop it sooner by turning off the device. Once the probes are in place in the target, the officer can deliver multiple cycles as he deems necessary and appropriate.

Major Pain Compliance

The second use of the Taser is to gain what is known as pain compliance. If incapacitation is a simple concept, the use of pain compliance is even simpler. In the event an officer finds herself in close quarters with a non-compliant subject, the Taser can be used without a cartridge to deliver a localized electric shock in order to deliver pain. The intended purpose of the pain is to entice the resistant subject to comply with the officer's attempts to control him.

Taser-Related Deaths

According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, more than 1,000 people have died in the United States after having been exposed to a Taser or other ECD since 2001.

Amnesty International has recognized that ECD's may not be directly responsible for these deaths, but they've expressed concerns that ECD's may encourage more aggressive uses of force by officers.

Few, if any, of the so-called Taser-related deaths have been directly attributed to the effects of the devices themselves, and instead are the result of specific officer and subject factors. Most commonly, deaths have occurred from a condition known as excited delirium, a state most often seen in subjects who are high on certain stimulants and who have been fighting with officers.

Other deaths and injuries occurred as a result of where and how the weapons were deployed in relation to the subject, such as on a ledge or on top of a staircase. In such cases, the subjects received injuries from falls as opposed to the effect of the electricity from the weapon. To reduce these instances, ECD manufacturers recommend, and agencies have adopted, policies governing their use.

Saving Lives and Preventing Injury

Taser International and other ECD manufacturers insist that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. To counter accusations of ECD-related deaths, excessive force and other issues surrounding the use of ECD's, Taser claims that the use of electronic control devices has saved 75,000 lives, reduced injuries to suspects by 60 percent and prevents thousands of injuries and deaths to law enforcement officers each year.

Electronic Control Devices: Effective Tools of the Trade

Regardless of where you may come down on the debate as to whether electronic control devices are an appropriate use of force, it is hard to deny that they are an effective tool for today's law enforcement officers.

Tasers and other similar devices, along with other less lethal and non-lethal weapons, continue to change how officers approach and deal with aggressive and violent subjects.

These ingenious devices are but one example of how technology is used in law enforcement, as well as how technology has continued to change the landscape of other careers in criminal justice and criminology.