When the headline talks about police using a “stun gun”, you know the reporter doesn’t know much about the subject. While there are stunning devices on the market for both private and law enforcement use, the differences between a stun gun and a TASER used by law enforcement are significant.
The TASER device was patented in 1974 but didn’t become popular with law enforcement until the early 2000s. There are other manufacturers of similar products, but the TASER brand is so ubiquitous that it has practically become the generic label for all devices that use an electrical shock to control behavior. To include all makers the term electronic control weapon (ECWs) or conducted energy devices (ECDs). It is important to known that ECWs do not electrocute people, but uses voltage to cause muscles to seize up without serious after effects other than injuries that might be sustained from falling after immobilized.
TASER devices used by law enforcement do their job when the operator pulls the trigger. This activates a nitrogen cartridge that propels two barbed probes attached to wires toward the target. The barbs remain attached to the ECW and spread slightly away from one another. When contact is made with the target, a 5-second cycle of 50,000 volts locks interferes with the nervous system in such a way that locks the muscles of the body into immobility. While the target experiences pain with the shock, the pain is not the primary reason for ECW use. The main purpose is to immobilize the person long enough to get them into restraints. The length of the wires trailing the barbed probes varies from fifteen to thirty feet. This allows the officer to maintain some distance from the target.
Stun guns typically have two probes that may or may not be sharp to add additional defensive authority since these devices must be pressed onto the target and make full contact. The voltage may or may not immobilize the target and rely mostly on the pain and psychological shock of the stun gun to cause them to retreat. Stun guns have fixed probes and unlike the law enforcement ECWs, those probes do not spread. Probe distance is essential in ECWs in order to complete the electrical circuit for the voltage to have an effect. Lacking this, the stun gun cannot reliably cause immobilization.
Stun guns must back solid and sustained contact with the target to have an effect. This can be difficult if the user is engaged in a fight with an attacker. A sharp movement by the attacker can thwart its use. Like the TASER, some stun gun devices have a laser light sight to create the sniper effect of a red dot on an adversary that may cause them to flee. Stun guns can also be triggered to create an imposing mini-lightening bolt to arc across the probes that is very intimidating.
Law enforcement ECWs can also arc, but, on most models, only if the cartridge that contains the probes are removed or already discharged. The laser light on the ECW can be used as a warning to “paint” the target and often brings compliance from the mere thought of being “tased”.
ECWs can fail if the probes do not penetrate heavy clothing, don’t achieve an adequate spread, or if one of the probes fails to make contact. A highly active arrestee can prevent the probes from making their target. An officer can manually attach a new cartridge or use the exposed conductors of the ECW for a contact shock, known as a drive stun, to either complete the circuit when one probe has engaged or as a pain compliance technique accompanied by verbal commands.
Once attached, the probes can be activated for additional 5-second cycles up to department policy limits or it become obvious that the cycles are not causing compliance.
ECWs are not a substitute for deadly force. If confronted with a deadly weapon by an assailant, an officer should not rely on the ECW, but engage their firearms. If there is time and adequate backup with available deadly force, an officer may attempt to deploy an ECW knowing that if the device fails other officers can engage the armed assailant.
ECWs are very safe based on a multitude of studies. Although in custody deaths after ECW deployment have been recorded, complicating factors like drug use are the true cause. Many tests and studies have shown that there is little to no risk of the heart being stopped or harmed by ECW use. ECWs have proven to reduce death and injury to both officers and offenders compared to other restraint strategies. The ability to immobilize a person resisting arrest laying hands-on is a major factor in the safety of these devices.
The public can be assured that good training and clear policy prevents overuse or misuse of ECW technology for safer policing to officers and arrestees.