Electro-Muscular Disruption Technology and How it Works

Electro-muscular disruption (EMD) technology – i.e., Tasers™ – has become an essential tool for American law-enforcement agencies within the past five years. With over 7,100 of the nation’s law-enforcement departments and agencies, and the U.S. military, now using Tasers, the various ways in which “use of force” incidents are planned and carried out have shifted significantly.

This makes a lot of sense, particularly in view of the dramatic reduction in injuries – not only to police officers and soldiers, but also to suspects – that has been recorded since Tasers first came into common use. Throughout the entire country, Tasers are now used on a daily basis to stop focused and aggressive suspects, and suicidal individuals, without causing injury. The use of Taser technology has, in fact, become global: There are now 45 nations that have fielded EMD devices to their own law-enforcement agencies and military units, and that number is growing each year.  Justice: Swift, Sure, and SafeTasers – defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “a gun that fires electrified darts to stun and immobilize a person” – have been around since the 1970s, when inventor John H. Cover first realized that high-voltage/low-amperage electricity could be effectively used to subdue both humans and animals without causing injury. Interestingly, the acronym TASER was taken from a science-fiction book Cover had enjoyed as a child: Thomas ASwift and his Electronic Rifle.  The early Tasers, which functioned primarily as pain-compliance devices, were used much like pepper spray and police batons: When an individual is combative or aggressive, pain – not life-threatening, it should be emphasized, or so intense or violent as to cause serious injury – is applied, via the electrified dart, to compel that person to follow police or military orders. These original Tasers were effective, except in situations when the individual was under the influence of a substance that masked the sensation of pain and/or was so highly motivated or focused that he or she could not feel the full effect of the pain.  In 1999, the first EMD Tasers were introduced by Taser International Inc. of Scottsdale, Arizona. The new Tasers, although based on Cover’s initial concept, were not specifically designed to work on the pain-compliance principle – although painful, they focus on using the natural systems within the human body against itself. The human body is controlled by the brain, which communicates with the rest of the body by a series of electrical impulses running through the central nervous system.  

Phenomenal Results From a Simple ConceptThe operational concept behind the new Tasers was a simple one: Generate electrical impulses similar to those produced by the human brain as a way to override the motor control system (and/or large muscle groups within the body) and the result will be immediate, debilitating, and incapacitating.

When properly deployed, Tasers have in the past five years lowered officer injury rates in some police departments up to eighty percent (Orange County, Fla.) and suspect injuries up to sixty-seven percent (Phoenix, Ariz.). Two major cities (Miami, Fla., and Seattle, Wash.) went through an entire calendar year (2003) without a single fatal police shooting – a phenomenal achievement, particularly in recent years, for law-enforcement agencies in cities of their size. These and other successes can be attributed to police-department adherence to one simple operating concept: Stop incidents in which force might be required at their lowest level, before they escalate to the use of weapons that commonly cause serious physical injury or death. Tasers are not designed to replace firearms, police batons, or pepper spray. They are, as previously noted, modern technological devices designed to give police officers and correctional officers an additional tool to use, in conjunction with good verbal skills and appropriate defensive tactics, to prevent relatively minor incidents from escalating into major confrontations in which innocent people might easily be killed or injured. Tasers work – extremely well. One of the major problems encountered by agencies deploying them, in fact, is that, because the Tasers do work so well, officers equipped with Tasers become overly reliant on them and do not always remember that the Taser is simply another tool to help law-enforcement agencies carry out their basic mission of maintaining law and order. What might easily become an over-reliance on Tasers can be combated only through the development and promulgation of strong policies and procedures governing the use of Tasers, followed up by large doses of the effective training needed to assist officers in making proper decisions on how and when to use these new enforcement tools.  

Anti-Taser Lobby Refuted by Independent StudiesSeveral years ago, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International said that Tasers should be banned, and lobbied for independent medical evaluation of EMD technology in general, pointing out that most of the original medical studies on this new technology had been funded by the manufacturer, Taser International. Claims that anywhere from 80 to 110 people had died after being stunned by Tasers were widely publicized.

Five years and more than three dozen independent medical studies later, the reports are in, and they confirm that there is only one known case in which the use of a Taser apparently caused a death. That case occurred in Louisiana, where, after being struck by a Taser, a suspect fell and hit his head, causing a fatal injury. No direct causation of death by the electrical energy was found, though – probably for the simple reason that the Taser does not have enough electrical power to damage either heart or nerve tissue. Operating on two three-volt lithium batteries (exactly like those in several types of digital cameras), the power output of the Taser is less than .004 amps. No application of force is totally and permanently without risk. But the Taser has proved to be the safest alternative that has ever been available to police-department personnel whose jobs require them to deal with violent combative individuals. In addition to the Louisiana fatality, there have been a number of other deaths that have followed, but were not necessarily caused by, Taser applications, but the vast majority of these have been attributed to massive drug overdoses, preexisting heart problems, and a relatively rare medical condition known as excited delirium.  Usually, those in a state of excited delirium lack the body’s normal mechanisms for self-preservation and simply fight themselves beyond the point of exhaustion – to death, in other words. The condition is not new, incidentally, and is not caused by the frenetic stress of modern times. It was first documented in the 1800s, in fact, in the Journal of Insanity.  Among the more recent and more comprehensive independent medical evaluations of EMD technology are those that have been conducted by the United States Military Human Effects Center of Excellence (HECOE) and The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; medical organizations such as PACE, the Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology Journal, also have done valuable work in this field. Executive summaries of most if not all of the latest EMD studies are available on Taser International’s website www.taser.com.  

Guidelines and RecommendationsIn April 2005, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization of police executives, with over 19,000 members in over 89 different countries, developed a report that includes a number of thoughtful and thoroughly researched guidelines to help law-enforcement agencies deal with the deployment and use of EMD devices.

The IACP report was designed to, among other things, provide law-enforcement decision-makers with a strategy to successfully field TASER technology through a combination of carefully considered policies and procedures, comprehensive training, and the involvement of local community leaders in the process. The IACP report is available, along with more than a dozen Executive Brief Citations and other materials on EMD devices, at www.iacp.org/research/rcdcuttingedgetech.htm

Agencies now investigating the possibility of deploying EMD technology should be aware that there are certain other helpful steps that they should consider. In addition to following the strategies outlined in the IACP report, these agencies should ensure that the emergency medical services agencies supporting them are trained both in dealing with patients who have been struck by Tasers and inentifying medical conditions that over the past five years have been determined to be potentially life-threatening. Before deploying Tasers, these agencies also would be well advised to educate local media and community groups on the reasons why a Taser program is being started, and supply the same groups, and the general public, with complete and accurate data on what Tasers are, how they work, and how they not only save lives and deter crime but also make the community much safer in many other ways.

Jay Kehoe

Jay Kehoe



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