Thursday, September 24, 2020


Perilous confrontations that result in police fatally shooting a civilian can only be described as tragic. The death of Breonna Taylor is once again in the news. Cases in which Black men were shot triggered social unrest this summer, with the rippling effect of widespread violence only adding to the heartbreak.

Many officers across the nation have non-lethal tools such as Tasers for use in controlling dangerous subjects, but they often have little choice but to fire their service weapons when those devices prove ineffective. In addition to the quest for equal justice, Americans should be calling for law enforcement innovations that reduce death and injury.

The most recent incident to roil national sensibilities occurred late last month in Kenosha, Wisconsin, when Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot by city police. Mr. Blake scuffled with police officers at the scene of a domestic dispute, according to news reports, causing them to discharge their Tasers in a failed attempt to subdue him. When he reached into his car for a knife, he was shot in the back, leaving him in serious condition.

A similarly grim incident played out in June, when Rayshard Brooks, suspected of driving under the influence, was killed while resisting arrest in Atlanta. A 27-year-old Black man, Brooks fought with two police officers, shrugged off the effects of a Taser discharge and attempted to shoot one cop with his own Taser before being fatally shot.

In both incidents, police failed to control a resisting subject with a non-lethal weapon. Officers then resorted to lethal force, leading to explosive nights of looting, arson and rioting. Worse, the ensuing violence resulted in the incidental deaths of individuals caught up in the ensuing mayhem.

The Taser, which incapacitates a subject by targeting him with a strong but mostly harmless electrical charge, is not always effective. A 2019 of investigation by APM Reports concluded that in 258 cases between 2015 and 2017, a threatening individual was fatally shot by police after a Taser failed to subdue him.

The study found that among 12 major metropolitan police departments, the Taser effectiveness rate varied from a low of 54.7% in Indianapolis to a high of 79.5% in El Paso. In New York, Los Angeles and Houston, use of a newer model with a weaker electrical discharge proved safer for targeted subjects, but less effective in subduing them.

Despite clear evidence that the Taser has saved thousands of lives, occasions when it has failed have helped fuel outrage over police shootings of Black citizens. In 21st century America, with all its innovative resources, law enforcement must devise better non-lethal tools.

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