Over the last several years, Tasers have become the non-lethal weapons of choice by police across the country, but their safety is again being questioned. In August 2010, Matthew T. Hook was suspected of driving a stolen van when he fled from police and scaled an 8-foot fence. An officer ordered Hooks to stop but when he didn’t, the officer fired his stun gun. By the time the Taser probes struck Hook, he had reached the top of the fence. The electric current paralyzed his muscles causing him to fall head first to the concrete below. Hook’s suffered massive brain injuries and now requires around the clock care. His family filed a lawsuit alleging that the officer used excessive force. The claim resulted in a $2.25 million judgement against the township. This is not the first lawsuit of its kind. Countless lawsuits have been filed in recent years as police departments are being sued for damages and liability by people who are injured by the use of the devices.
Taser/stun guns were initially introduced as safer alternatives to police battalions or pistols. If someone is threatening another, but is not quite at the level where lethal force is necessary, a taser can get the situation safely under control before it escalates. The taser/stun gun works by delivering a brief, but intense electrical shock to the target. However, these devices have reached nationwide attention as a result of serious health risks, injuries, and death. This has not stopped a select number of police officers from using these weapons with little regard for the safety of those they are tasing.
Tasers seem to be a necessary evil. Police need to be equipped with something to restrain suspects that is less harmful than a firearm yet more powerful than a nightstick. The only plausible solution seems to be for police to be prohibited from using tasers unless absolutely necessary – when the suspect poses a threat to others. Yet, necessity depends so much on the individual officer’s perception.
Lawsuits, whether the result of medical malpractice, defective products, or a lax policies, procedures and training, usually result in improved safety. While there are currently efforts at a national level to establish guidelines of tasers, policies are spotty and created by individual jurisdictions. Each police department revises their policies on a continuing basis. Some law enforcement agencies have put programs on hold so that officers can be retrained after injuries occur. Others have adopted policies on when and how stun gun devices may be used to subdue an aggressive or dangerous suspect. While these are great steps toward making the use of these devices safer, many questions remain about stun guns and their safety. But no one has considered discontinuing their use because of litigation – that is until now.
Although insurance covered the award to Mr. Hook, township officials — and officers — have become more wary of the use of stun guns. In fact, the Perry Township department is looking to phase out its tasers. Township Trustee Chet Chaney said that four of the department’s 21 officers remain certified to use tasers, but the devices probably will be phased out as the officers leave or retire. Yet, the head of the largest police union in that County said it might be a mistake. “Anytime you can implement a less-than-lethal use-of-force option, that’s an asset,” “said Jason Pappas, president of Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9. He said the use of stun guns falls between using a baton or fist and shooting someone; the potential for death is much higher with a firearm. The national FOP in Washington, D.C. agrees.
While there seems to be no easy answers about the use of stun gun devices by police departments, until stricter regulations are enacted (or enforced, where regulation already exists), these troubling occurrences will continue. Hopefully, the above mentioned lawsuit, and others like it can bring focus to this issue and a common sense approach to taser use by law enforcement.
Lawsuit Financial supports any effort made by local and national police associations to regulate the use of tasers and train officers to use them appropriately. We call on state and federal legislators to enact appropriate legislation to limit the use of tasers and punish abusers. Police officers should be about making all of us safer; they should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We will be watching to see if the Perry Township police department becomes the first to ban the use of taser/stun guns.
Stun guns and tasers are currently illegal in the following states: Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.