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Social Justice Brief # 2

Alternatives to Deadly Force: Tasers

Policing in America Series: Alternatives to Deadly Force

By Laura Plummer

December 21, 2020

Summary

On Oct. 26, Philadelphia police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr. in broad daylight. In a viral video of the incident, Wallace can be seen approaching officers with a knife. After issuing a verbal warning, they unloaded 14 rounds into the 27-year-old from a distance of around 15 feet. He quickly collapsed to the pavement and was later pronounced dead.

What the video doesn’t show is that police were actually responding to a 911 call that Wallace was experiencing a mental health crisis. The event sparked a nationwide debate about the role of law enforcement in mental health emergencies. At minimum, many believe Wallace’s death could have been prevented if officers on the scene had been equipped with tasers.

A taser is a conductive electrical device (CED) that causes painful muscle contractions. It came on the market in 1993 to provide law enforcement with an alternative to firearms. Over 90 percent of police departments in the U.S. issue them. But at the time of Wallace’s death, only one third of Philadelphia officers were trained to use tasers.

Tasers are often confused with stun guns. While both are CEDs that deliver an electric shock, a stun gun must be used directly against the skin. Depending on the model, police tasers can be effective at a distance up to 35 feet. This makes them especially useful if a suspect is fleeing, resisting arrest or behaving in a menacing way. They can incapacitate someone for five minutes to an hour without causing any permanent injury.

While tasers are less lethal than firearms, they still present the possibility of serious injury or death if misused or abused. Some people are also at higher risk, including pregnant women, the elderly, children, and those with certain medical conditions. In addition, secondary risks exist if a tasered subject falls from a height, crashes his vehicle, or hits the ground while running. Tasers have even been known to catch flammable materials on fire.

Analysis

Despite the taser’s shortcomings, it is likely Walter Wallace Jr. would still be alive today had he been tasered rather than shot. The Philadelphia Police Department has a use-of-force continuum on the books, which prescribes an officer’s level of force according to an offender’s behavior. Additionally, the department requires police to exhaust all alternatives prior to discharging their firearms. Because Wallace was at a sufficient distance away, and armed with only a knife, a compliant officer may have first reached for his taser.

Policies around use of force and exhausting alternatives are only effective when police have access to less lethal weapons like tasers. When officers only have firearms in their tool belts, that will be their go-to weapon when responding to a threat.

This brief was compiled by Laura Plummer.

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