The Taser has become a ubiquitous technology used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country. Law enforcement officials in New York City are currently considering whether to provide Tasers to city police officers on a wide scale. New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has cautiously approached the decision, but says plans to implement a controlled test of the device in certain precincts may be in the works. Recently, the city has allowed sergeants to carry Tasers, but not other officers. In contrast, at least 4,500 police agencies around the country distribute Tasers to their forces en massee.

Although Tasers are a relatively nascent technology, they have been widely sold around the country and the globe. Manufacturer Taser International claims to have sold Tasers to more than 12,750 law enforcement and military agencies in 44 countries. Because Tasers are relatively new, New York’s decision presents an interesting case study into the future of the Taser as well as the legal issues accompanying its use. Moreover, New York City’s decision may portent the Taser’s future elsewhere as the city is home to the nation’s largest police force.

Allowing officers to carry Tasers on a wide scale is not without legal risk. Tasers are not a 100% safe alternative to other police methods and can cause serious injuries and death. Tasers have the potential to reduce fatal police shootings, but may lead to an increased use of force. Legal rules that delineate the exact circumstances in which officers are allowed to use these devices will make an important difference in the legal liabilities cities face by allowing police to carry Tasers.

To grasp the potential for liability, the New York City Police Department, even with limited deployment of the device, uses Tasers on suspects about 300 times per year. In early June 2008, the son of a retired police lieutenant filed suit against New York when police shocked him with a Taser four times in his home. In early June, a New York man was killed when police electrocuted him with a Taser. Ironically, the day after his death, a federal jury in California awarded more than $6 million to the family of a man who police killed with a Taser. Globally, Amnesty International alleges to have tracked more than 300 cases since 2001 in which people died after being shocked by Tasers.

Ultimately, New York will face a tough decision. Whether it chooses to allow officers to carry Tasers on a large scale may be determined not only by the device’s effectiveness, but also by the legal liabilities that the city will incur by allowing officers to carry the device. These liabilities will be affected by the rules New York City puts in place as to when officers may use Tasers on suspects.

– Dan Nixa

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