Nationwide, departments have stocked up on these stun guns, which are touted as a way to avoid drawing an actual gun. As part of a reform package announced after Chicago police shot and killed Laquan McDonald, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently ordered nearly 800 of them.
Tasers work in two different ways. From a distance, they can shoot barbs into people, which have wires that attach to the device. With this method, an electric shock temporarily makes people lose muscular control. Tasers can also be applied directly to people’s skin, incapacitating them simply by causing intense pain.
Del Pozo, however, is calling attention to a different issue: what happens when Tasers don’t work.
He explained that people are sometimes able to pull out the barbs. Baggy clothing can prevent the barbs from attaching in the first place. And people who are using drugs or are in the throes of a mental health crisis may be less susceptible to the Taser-induced pain.
Last month, police used a Taser on a mentally ill Burlington resident named Ralph “Phil” Grenon, with no apparent effect. Del Pozo said that Grenon continued to advance toward the officers with knives. He said his officers did have a back-up plan — to back out of the room — and were doing so when two officers got cornered. Ultimately Grenon was shot multiple times and killed.
Citing LAPD data, the story notes that of the 1,100 times cops fired Tasers last year, the “devices had the desired outcome — causing someone to submit to arrest — only 53% of the time.”
Particularly when responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis, del Pozo said he now believes that “something with that type of failure rate can’t be a reliable part of the plan.”
Still, don’t expect del Pozo to ditch Tasers anytime soon. Noting that, “all techniques have failure rates,” he maintains that “in rapidly evolving situations, it’s still better than a gun.”
He suggested other “de-escalation” tools — protective body suits for officers; shields; high-pressure water devices similar to fire extinguishers; and a U-shaped piece of wrought iron called a shepherd’s crook, which can help police subdue somebody — could supplant Tasers in certain situations. The catch, he said: “Although they sound simple, they require a level of specialized training and coordination that doesn’t exist [locally].”