Buried in the vast grand jury files about the Ferguson shooting, Officer Darren Wilson acknowledged that on the fateful night he killed Michael Brown, he was not armed with a Taser because he considered the weapon clunky and heavy.
It’s a revelation certain to renew the debate over whether more police departments should require all officers to carry the nonlethal weapon as an additional tool to prevent confrontations from escalating.
A 2011 Justice Department study on the use of Tasers and other nonlethal weapons concluded they can spare lives and injury for both suspects and officers. The report noted that when a Taser was used, the risk of an injury to the suspect was between 50 percent to 90 percent lower than when one was not used but a different form of force was.
Top law enforcement experts told The Washington Times that they believe all law enforcement officers should be equipped with a Taser to use nonlethal force in confrontations like that between Officer Wilson and Brown. But they cautioned that the electrical knockout gun is not a cure-all, and violent clashes requiring the use of police guns are still inevitable.
“You may not like the appearance of Taser, you may not like the perception of Taser, but the bottom line is Taser saves lives. It saves cops’ lives; it saves suspect lives,” said Bernard Kerik, former New York City Police Commissioner.
Mr. Kerik, who served on the board of the Taser company from 2002 to 2005, said the devices are an invaluable tool in situations that are often fluid.
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“I personally think every cop that’s in uniform in every department in this country should have them, and I think they should be told by their departments that they should wear them,” he said. “You don’t have a crystal ball. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you go on the street that day.”
Ultimately, a grand jury ruled that Mr. Wilson was justified in using his service weapon to shoot and kill the unarmed 18-year-old. Experts are certain to debate exactly when a Taser might have been appropriate to use in the split-second sequences during which the tragedy unfolded.
But experts said that even a Taser may not stop a dangerous situation, and that the individual officers make a judgment call on what to do.
“No doubt that, in a perfect world, the good law enforcement officer is trained on everything that’s on his Bat Belt and all his Bat Tools are in a nice little row,” said Ron Hosko, former FBI assistant director. “But in the real world, in the world we live in, these incidents can happen with very little warning.”
Many situations happen so fast that the officer has to make a snap judgment, said Mr. Hosko, who is currently the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.
“You’re going from zero to 100 in less than a second because someone’s trying to take your life,” he said. “You can be instantly in the fight for your life, and what you chose to use may save your life, may cost you your life, and it may take a life.”
Equipping police with Tasers helps gives officers more choices in how to handle situations, said Ronnie Frigulti, a retired FBI agent.
“The more tools you give the officer, the more chances you can have things like this avoided,” said Mr. Frigulti, who served as the FBI’s principal firearms instructor in Los Angeles from 1980 to 1997 and was a leader on the agency’s SWAT team for 18 years.
“If we’re going to have Tasers in a department, I think it shouldn’t be optional,” he said. “I think every officer should have one and be trained with it.”
Mr. Frigulti, who now works as a consultant for police forces, said, however, that the confrontation in Ferguson between Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown likely escalated beyond the use of nonlethal force.
“The Taser’s a wonderful weapon, don’t misunderstand me, but in that situation I still think he was justified in using his weapon because [Brown] was so aggressive,” he said.
Despite the ongoing protests claiming racial bias, Mr. Frigulti said no officer starts off trying to kill a suspect. “The last thing an officer wants to do is shoot someone, I don’t care what anyone tells you,” he said. “Taking a human life is the absolute last resort.”
Mr. Kerik also said that it’s possible the presence of a Taser wouldn’t have affected the outcome in Ferguson at all.
“Maybe he shot the Taser and missed, maybe he couldn’t use the Taser, maybe he couldn’t get to it based on where he was in the car,” Mr. Kerik said.
It can be difficult to get an exact count on how many U.S. police departments use Tasers and how many more are requiring officers to carry one constantly. Law enforcement officials with whom The Washington Times spoke estimated that likely less than half of all departments require officers to carry them whenever they are on duty.
The devices are not always popular with the police, as Officer Wilson admitted during his grand jury testimony.
“I normally don’t carry a Taser,” the transcript reads. “We only have a select amount. Usually there is one available, but I usually elect not to carry one. It is not the most comfortable thing. They are very large. I don’t have a lot of room in the front for it to be positioned.”
The 2011 study by the Justice Department said that the increasing use of Tasers has managed to reduce injuries to both police officers and suspects.
“All evidence suggests that the use of [Tasers and similar devices] carries with it a risk as low as, or lower than, most alternatives,” the report said. “Officer injuries were either unaffected or reduced when a [device] was used. In contrast, using physical force increased the odds of injury to officers by more than 300 percent and to suspects by more than 50 percent.”
Mr. Hosko said that police departments and the communities that support them need to have discussions about equipping police forces with Tasers. Though useful, the devices represent an added cost in an era where budgets have been dwindling, he noted.
Mr. Kerik said people shouldn’t be trying to second-guess Officer Wilson’s actions.
“Nobody can sit back and say what you would have, could have, should have done when it wasn’t them,” he said. “I can tell you by experience, nobody knows what they’re going to do in a certain circumstance until it’s happening to them.”
Despite improvements in policing techniques, lower crime rates and innovations like the Taser, law enforcement is still a dangerous job, and confrontations between police and suspects are going to occur, he said.
“I’ve had cops that worked for me that were killed, and I had friends that were killed,” Mr. Kerik said. “Police officers, when they get that shield and gun, they don’t get a Superman cape with it. They’re human beings.”
• Phillip Swarts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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