Stun Guns, ECD's Are Not "Nonlethal" By Any Name

Debunking Some ECD Myths

Barbara Attard

The most common question I’m asked when talking to someone about stun guns or Electronic Control Devices (ECD’s) is, “Wouldn’t it better to be stunned than shot with a gun?” This is good question that exposes one of the many myths about ECD’s—that officers will use an ECD instead of a gun in a lethal force situation. The fact is that in most police departments officers are taught not to use an ECD or any “less lethal” option if they’re confronted with a “deadly force” situation, because the less-lethal option may not be effective, and the officer and/or a member of the public will be in jeopardy if the less-lethal option doesn’t stop the perpetrator.

The City of San Francisco is once again considering issuing ECD’s to SF police officers. The proposal that will come before the Police Commission is that only officers who have had crisis intervention training will be issued ECD’s. The SFPD is proposing that in lethal force situations, the officer using the ECD must be “covered” by another officer who is training a gun on the subject—to ensure that if the ECD is not effective, the other officer can use lethal force.

While this “back-up” scenario is a response to the issue of officers not using stun guns in lethal force situations, the proposal is not realistic. After every police shooting we hear a police chief explain that lethal force situations are high-intensity, they require split-second decision making, and they are chaotic. To ask officers to orchestrate the “lethal weapon back-up” in such situations puts the officers and the public in jeopardy. Since the officers who will be carrying ECD’s are trained in crisis intervention, shouldn’t they be attempting to use de-escalation techniques rather than escalating to a complicated scenario involving less-lethal and lethal weapons?

Another fallacy about stun guns is that they reduce the number of police shootings and officer-involved deaths. ECD’s are often overused. When first deployed in San Jose, Tasers, a brand of ECD, were reportedly used over 200 times per year; seven deaths were reported in incidents in which the suspect had been “Tasered” during the first five years of implementation there. A 2009 observational study by two UCSF doctors found that in the first year after ECD’s were deployed, the aggregate data of 50 cities showed an increase in both sudden deaths and officer-involved shootings.

One need only look at the shooting of Oscar Grant III on New Year’s Day in 2009 for a glaring case showing that stun guns do not prevent officer-involved shootings. Former BART Officer Mehserle alleged that he was intending to stun Grant rather than shoot him when he armed himself with the wrong weapon. Review of the Grant shooting will show that there was little justification even for the use of the stun gun—Grant was face down on the ground with two large officers handcuffing him when Mehserle stood up and took aim.

ECD’s are expensive—to buy, to train officers, and to pay out judgments and settlements after wrongful death or excessive force lawsuits. In a recent case, The University of Cincinnati agreed to pay $2 million and suspend the use of Tasers by university police as part of a settlement with the family of a student who died after being shocked with a Taser.

It is difficult to find a good argument for arming San Francisco police officers with a weapon that has had such a problematic track record.

Barbara Attard is an NLGSF member active in the State Bar Committee. She is a is a police accountability consultant.