Police concerns over new Taser effectiveness set for trial in US
A lawsuit filed in the United States against the manufacturer of the Taser alleges that the X2 model currently being rolled out across the UK and produces only half the electrical charge of its predecessor is too underpowered to properly protect the officers using it.
The case, which will go to trial in November, comes on the back of growing concerns that Tasers – especially the new models – are significantly less effective in the field than they are under test conditions.
The US lawsuit against Axon was filed in Texas by Officer Karen Taylor who alleged her X2 model failed to stop a mentally ill woman attacking her, leaving her with back injuries that ended her career.
In March this year, the US District Court in Houston denied Axon’s motion for summary judgment in the case and ordered the case to go to trial. The judge stated that: “the jury is capable of logical, common sense conclusions about what could happen if police officers were armed with less effective [tasers] and lost confidence in their use.”
A second lawsuit has also been filed against Axon by the family of a New Orleans police officer who was shot and killed after his X26P (which produces the same level of charge as the X2) Taser was allegedly ineffective against a suspect.
Tasers are designed to subdue suspects by causing neuro-muscular incapacitation (NMI) in their bodies, rendering then unable to move. During pre-release testing “NMI was achieved at or near 100 per cent of the time” under ideal conditions, according to the manufacturer Axon.
However, such ideal conditions – which include both probes making contact with the subject, being the correct distance apart and striking an area of sufficient muscle mass – are rarely encountered by officers on the street.
A 2016 study by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) found the devices had subdued suspects in only 53 per cent of uses during 2015, and in the same year five fatal police shootings took place after officers first used a Taser but found it ineffective.
In a statement, Axon admitted: “Although law enforcement users are trained on these required conditions, they are often confronted with circumstances that may prevent these conditions from being met.”
In the UK 83 per cent of incidents involving a Taser do not involve the weapon actually being fired as the act of drawing and aiming the weapon is often enough to achieve compliance. There are, however, concerns that in incidents where officers find themselves having to fire their Tasers to protect themselves, the devices may prove ineffective more often than expected, leaving officers at risk of being injured or forcing them to use conventional firearms.
In March this year, Bedfordshire Coroner’s court held an inquest into the death of Josh Pitt who was shot dead after attempts to use a Taser proved “ineffective”. In October 2015, officers from the Metropolitan Police Service shot and wounded Joseph Hive after Tasers were discharged against him eleven times without effect.
A more recent investigation in the US found 250 fatal police shootings between 2015 and 2017 that occurred after a Taser failed to incapacitate a suspect.
Concerns about the lower power output of the X2 were also raised by the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons prior to its approval in the UK. Its 2016 report noted: “Although presently speculation, one possible implication of the lower charge is that the degree of neuromuscular incapacitation – and possibly pain – induced by single cartridge discharge from the X2 may be less than that from the X26. If this results in decreased effectiveness, this may lead officers to use alternative, potentially more injurious, forms of force or increase the frequency of deployment of the second cartridge bay.”
Axon said there are “no discernible differences” in the takedown abilities of the X2 and the X26 as the X2 operates in a different way. The company said: “It should be noted that “power” does not equal charge. Rather, charge is only one of three parameters that contribute to a Conducted Energy Weapon’s ability to cause NMI. The other two parameters – pulse duration and pulse frequency – are just as important and all three parameters must be considered together. Generally speaking, increasing the pulse frequency and charge, and decreasing pulse duration, increases the ability to cause NMI.”
Andy Gray, a former MPS and Lincolnshire Police officer who now works for Axon in the UK told Police Professional: “Having been tased by both, I can tell you they are both very effective.”
In October 2018 Axon unveiled the Taser 7, a new model with redesigned probes that are more accurate and more able to penetrate clothing – a leading cause of ineffectiveness. The weapon is not yet authorised for use in the UK.
Ché Donald, national vice-chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “As with all pieces of equipment there is unlikely to ever be a 100 per cent success rate. The Federation pushed hard for the roll-out of X2 to replace its predecessor – the X26 – because the newer model allows officers the option of a second shot if the first has not disabled the subject. Our view is that it is better that officers have Taser as a tactical option than not.”
For a more detailed report on concerns around the effectiveness of Tasers, see the feature “Highly-charged debate” in the June issue of Police Professional.