Since the 1950s, guards at jails and prisons have used stun batons — cattle prods — and stun belts on prisoners considered to be dangerous. Those devices carry a jolt of about 5,000 to 10,000 volts. Then in the early 1970s, police began using early-generation TASERS — an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. The punch these early Tasers carried was equivalent to or slightly stronger than that of a stun baton.
But those early Tasers were a far cry — a long, agonized scream, victims might say — from the powerful weapons being used by police today. In 2000, TASER International of Arizona introduced the M26, which the company touted as being nearly four times more powerful than its predecessors. Looking like something out of a sci-fi movie, the gun shoots two fish-hook-barbed electrical wires that can travel up to 21 feet and deliver a 50,000-volt shock in a cycle that lasts five seconds. It can also be fired by placing the weapon in direct contact with clothing or skin. The shock renders the recipient instantly immobile, and the five-second cycle may be increased if the officer continues to hold the trigger down. The M26, with bright yellow striping across a black body, comes equipped with “built-in laser sights and an onboard data chip that records the time and date of each firing to back up an officer’s use of force reports.”
But for a weapon whose makers crow about its “stopping power,” Tasers occupy a strange place in the police rulebook. Law enforcement officers learn what is called a “use of force continuum” to determine what means or weapons they may use in different situations. The “continuum” begins with simple police presence, then moves up to issuing commands, then the use of open hands, and after that, pepper or other chemical sprays, closed hands (including elbows and knees and other takedown moves), the use of a hard baton, and finally, the use of lethal force.
You might think Tasers would fit somewhere near the “lethal force” end of that list, right before a gun. Instead, however, many police agencies place Tasers immediately after the “issuing commands” force level — which suggests to officers that using a Taser is less serious even than a push or pepper spray. Which also means that if an officer asks you to produce your driver’s license and you ask “Why?” rather than immediately complying with the order, there’s a chance, in some jurisdictions, that you could, within their rules, be hit with a Taser for refusing the command. That’s in part how Tasers have begun to be used, not as serious, life-threatening weapons, but as a bully’s tool of compliance, something to get people in line — with sometimes egregious consequences.