Archive 2008 - 2019

The Trouble with Tasers

by Dianna Vosburg

The Holliston Police Department is planning to buy Conducted Electricity Weapons (CEWs). These weapons are commonly known as “tasers” because TASER International, Inc., the manufacturer, has a virtual monopoly on CEW production and sales. The eight tasers requested originally by the HPD cost just under $10,000. The Holliston police intend to buy tasers and provide training from their operating budget. They will not need to seek approval for a capital expenditure for tasers at the town meeting.

Chief Moore offered a thoughtful forum on tasers, which I attended in February, and I also participated in a Board of Selectmen meeting during which we held a long discussion on tasers. The Board of Selectmen approved the purchase of tasers after the discussion.

Through discussing tasers and working with Chief Moore, I have been very impressed with our local police. We have a professional and caring police force, obviously highly trained, responsive, and committed to the philosophy of community policing. When you need help, they will be there for you as they have been there for me. Those of us who question tasers are not anti-police. Yet however much I admire our police department and had begun to think that superior training and clear policies could make taser use acceptable, I still felt uneasy (especially about the prospect of tasers carried in our schools), and I decided to do some further research. Chief Moore, who politely disagrees with me on tasers, nevertheless fully supports my right to explore this issue in depth and share my opinions.

Tasers work by immobilizing people through disrupting nervous system signals sent to muscles, but they also cause excruciating pain. That was the source of my unease. What does it feel like to be tased? Some say it is worse than the agonizing pain of labor. It attenuates the subjective experience of time, making seconds last forever. “It feels like a jack hammer working your back.” It is excessive pain, like “being punched repeatedly by a heavy weight boxer.” It’s like “being hit endlessly by a 4x4.” It makes sense to pause and consider what this weapon means to police and citizens, especially in a national context of policing problems and human rights abuse. In 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture criticized the US for a lack of compliance with international anti-torture treaties. Included with excessive use of solitary confinement, military interrogations using torture (including electric shock), troubling police shootings, botched executions and so on, the UN committee denounced the widespread use of tasers by police against unarmed people.

Please understand, I’m not suggesting that our police officers are going to start running around zapping people for kicks. I have concerns about taser use in general in America, and about how TASER International aggressively and covertly markets these weapons. Tasers have been adopted rapidly and used with little regulation. I also have grave concerns about how the authoritarian use of pain and torture are increasingly seen as normal and appropriate in our culture. In her book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry posits that the structure of torture serves to convert real pain into the fiction of power. In a broken world full of threats and rising discontent, a tempting response to disorder is to take up the weapons of oppression and discipline, which only makes things worse in the end.

Many think that tasers are no big deal. Much rhetoric in common usage still assumes that tasers are “safe” and “non-lethal,” yet over 600 people have been killed in encounters with tasers and many more injured between 2001 and the end of 2014. Some injuries include paralysis and severe head trauma from falls, and the taser barbs (like fishhooks) have been removed from eyes, genitals, faces, and even one from the frontal lobe of the brain. Several peer-reviewed studies in respected journals show that tasers can provoke heart arrhythmias and lead to cardiac arrest. TASER International has modified guidelines to specify that police should avoid tasing the chest area (in addition to a long list of other restrictions on use), and the company now states that tasers are "less-lethal" as opposed to "non-lethal."

Police have tasered children as young as six, the frail elderly, the disabled, pregnant women, hospital patients, homeless people, non-English speakers, and often those suffering from mental illness. Many instances of police tasering reflect excessive use of force. Police are too often using tasers as tools of pain compliance or for vindictive attacks. Note that the word torture means to inflict pain for punishment or coercion. The 8th Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the use of “cruel and unusual punishment,” meaning punishment that causes suffering, pain, and humiliation. This is why we hand out prison sentences rather then use the rack, village stocks, or cat-o-nine-tails. Besides, we also possess the right to due process, the presumption of innocence, and the use of courts—not police—for trial and punishment.

News reports abound with dramatic stories of taser abuse, including the tasering—sometimes to the death—of people who are unarmed, handcuffed, or confined. In fact, 90% of those killed in association with taser deployment were unarmed and not considered a direct physical threat. Multiple lawsuits have been filed on behalf of those tasered, increasing liability concerns, including some lawsuits from police officers who have undergone tasering and sustained injuries during training.

National statistics indicate that the deployment of tasers does not automatically reduce the use of lethal force, which is the most common argument for their use. Instead, the use of tasers often rises exponentially. For example, in Miami, taser use increased dramatically while the use of lethal force also rose. The American Journal of Cardiology published a report in 2009, which concluded that, “…although considered by some a safer alternative to firearms, taser deployment was associated with a substantial increase in in-custody sudden deaths in the early deployment period, with no decrease in firearm deaths or serious officer injuries.” After equipping police with tasers in Arizona, the use of lethal force did not decline. At any rate, tasers are not meant to replace the use of lethal force in police policies, which is another widespread misconception. Tasers are adjuncts to batons, pepper spray, etc. and are on the same level of force. That is mainly because they are not always effective.

In 2012, a Michigan State University found that while injuries to officers declined by half after the deployment of tasers (note that the study above shows no decrease only for serious officer injuries that require ER treatment), injuries to citizens increased significantly from 29% to 41% of the time. This calls into question the widespread assumption that tasers reduce injuries for all parties.

Another study claiming that taser deployment does reduce injuries for all parties came from a well-respected and influential think tank, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). This PERF study was widely used to push public acceptance of tasers. Their own website said that they receive funding from "industry." PERF has known close financial ties to Lockheed Martin (surveillance technology) also Motorola (police radios). We don’t know if they receive funding from TASER International. We don’t know because PERF is not a government agency and does not have to conform to FOI requests and, with 501(c)(3) non-profit tax-exempt status, can shield the identity of its donors. Of course we all want officers to be as safe as possible, but we should have access to studies that we know are unbiased to examine the true change in rate of injuries to whom, so that we can evaluate tasers on basis of fact.

TASER International funds many studies on tasers. A meta-study in the American Heart Journal (2011) that looked into funding bias found that of 23 studies funded by TASER International, 22 concluded that tasers were safe. That’s 96%. In contrast, about 50% of the studies that were not funded by TASER International found that tasers were harmful. In fact, a study with any affiliation with TASER International had nearly 18 times the odds of concluding that tasers are safe. Advisors to federally funded studies on taser safety have also been paid consultants with TASER International. Dr. Lee, one of the authors of this study, said, "When you read articles that are very favorable to the device, invariably you will see that one of authors is affiliated with the company making Tasers or sitting on the board." TASER International will also sue medical examiners to remove tasers as a cause of death. This intimidates other medical examiners and may well skew the statistics on taser-related deaths to be more favorable to their business interests.

As well as funding research, TASER International cultivates direct business ties to some police associations and officers. In 2012, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) accepted a $300,000 donation from TASER International for its philanthropic foundation. The IACP is highly influential. It lobbies, submits legislation, testifies before Congress, and promotes police technology. TASER International also pays active duty police officers (directly or in stock options) to serve as instructors and trainers, which it states is crucial to "market penetration." TASER International pays for hotel stays and transportation for police chiefs who present for the company at promotional conferences, and also hires former police chiefs as consultants (sometimes very soon after their cities sign contracts with TASER International). In 2013, two Department of Justice consultants hired by the city of Albuquerque to advise on police technology were also being paid by TASER International. The Albuquerque Chief of Police subsequently retired...and went to work consulting for TASER International. Ethics reviews are pending in several cities over these financial ties to police. Of course, I am not suggesting that our small police department has any of these direct ties to TASER International, but rather pointing out how the company shows pattern of untoward influence over policing decisions as well as research nationwide, and that calls both research conclusions and widespread adoption of tasers into question over obvious conflicts-of-interest.

I especially object to covert marketing. TASER International pays a marketing firm, Praetorian Group, to market their products through the website that is a "project of" Praetorian Group. (The word praetorian originally referred to a member of a bodyguard troop for a Roman commander. It now means “defender of the existing order.”) PoliceOne has 650,000 registered members and receives three million unique visitors to the site per month. PoliceOne columnists write expert opinion on policing—including taser use and issues—without disclosing ties to Praetorian Group or TASER International. It’s no surprise that articles on this website are very often pro-taser use. From the Praetorian Group website (

We produce a wide range of sponsored content in multiple formats for our clients’ specific needs. Choose from our roster of industry experts or provide your own to write articles, produce a video product demonstration, or host a custom webinar. We manage every aspect of the project from concept development to promotion to execution and after action reporting.

Steve Tuttle, the VP of Communications for TASER International, makes a special statement of appreciation for the PoliceOne marketing scheme: “Since 2002, PoliceOne has proven itself as a valuable partner for effective and consistent communication to their more than 500,000 verified law enforcement members who represent the law enforcement community in thousands of departments worldwide. More importantly, PoliceOne has been exceptional in adapting and tailoring to the unique communication and marketing needs of TASER International.” Steve Tuttle was very involved in the effort to make police use of Tasers legal in Massachusetts. He also worked to prevent legislative moratoriums on tasers in several states.

TASER International was a member of the American Legislative Exchange (ALEC) until ALEC shut down its Public Safety and Elections task force due to public outcry over ALEC-driven Stand Your Ground laws written to benefit another member, the NRA. Many people are unfamiliar with this group: ALEC takes corporate donations and in return influences state legislators, and even writes legislation directly in favor of their corporate donor's profit interests. Often this profit interest is in conflict with public interest, hence the money-laundering nature of these front groups to shield donor identity. This may explain why so many states have passed legislation in favor of tasers. TASER International uses other influence peddling such as campaign contributions, lobbying, and the revolving door to protect and grow business profits.

TASER International is developing new, enhanced taser technology, including drone tasers, a shotgun taser that can be fired from 100 feet called MAUL, and a crowd-control taser called SHOCKWAVE. I can't help but think about their use against non-violent political protesters, and what that implies.

The picture that emerges is one of aggressive and covert marketing, biased research, rife conflicts-of-interest, and corruption. Tasers are oversold, their downsides underplayed and underreported, and marketing interests have outpaced objective public education and debate.

Perhaps the $1.5 billion spent on these weapons would be better invested in public services, especially mental health services. At any rate, we need more independent research, untainted by corporate dollars and corporate advisors, so that local communities can make objective decisions about tasers. If the police still feel that tasers are necessary, we can then develop stronger policies for their use that match the real risks posed by tasers. In that case, I feel that tasers should be used only as a last-resort alternative to lethal force.

It seems to me that an issue like purchasing tasers should come up for a discussion and a vote at a Town Meeting, at least, before they are deployed in our community.


Comments (19)

Well written Dianna. I truly have the highest regard for the Holliston Police Department but I have been against the use of Tasers for a long time. They truly do seem like devices of torture.

Susan Heavner | 2015-10-20 15:09:01

Well written and right on the mark, in my opinion. Thank you, Dianna, for taking the time to write this. I hope every citizen concerned about these manipulative weapons attends town meeting to have their voices heard!

Joe | 2015-10-20 09:23:42

I would like to note that the officer involved in the traffic stop in Texas where the 28 year old woman later died while in jail pulled his taser out in order to "entice" the woman, Sandra Bland, out of her car. The reason why the officer, Trooper Brian Encinia, originally pulled her over was failure to signal-she pulled over because he was coming up fast behind her and she felt she needed to get out of the way. He stated he was only going to give her a warning, but after she failed to comply with his order to put out the cigarette, which was in the ash tray and not being smoked by her during the stop. Ms. Bland refused to get out her car as the officer did not state why she wanted her out of the car. Trooper Encinia then opened the car door, then reached into Ms. Bland's car. Ms. Bland told him to get out her car. Trooper Encinia then stood back from the car and pulled out his taser and then with put the taser into the car, it appears the taser was in front of Ms. Bland when the taser was in the car. So, my question is why did the Trooper need to pull out his taser and threaten Ms. Bland. If the Trooper did not have a taser would he have pulled his gun on Ms. Bland. So, if the Boston PD do not carry tasers, and they have a lot more officer involved shootings, why does HPD need to purchase tasers.

V Murphy | 2015-07-22 09:49:38

From our Declaration Of Independence: " secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,..."

Martin Sawzin | 2015-06-14 15:57:39 Excerpt from this June 1 article: Michael Leonesio, who developed a training program for Taser use as an officer in the Police Department in Oakland, Calif., said the weapons, when used carefully, can neutralize suspects without putting them at risk of more than minor injuries. "When they're effective, they're very effective," he said. "It definitely stops the resistance, or the fight or flight immediately. The person goes to the ground. It is an efficient weapon." But, he added, in smaller police departments that lean on Taser International for guidance and fail to develop stringent training policies, they become much more dangerous, used for a wide range of suspects and on parts of the body that increase health risks. "They just leave it up to officers to do things on the street," said Mr. Leonesio, who has also worked with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop standards for testing electroshock weapons.

Martin Sawzin | 2015-06-14 07:57:18

Holliston is such a dangerous place each cop should carry 5 tasers.....

Alan stone | 2015-05-14 02:37:26

With society dipping closer to the bowels of hell, I would certainly want our police to have every available tool at their disposal. If officer Johnson had a taser at his side, he might be alive today.

Townie | 2015-05-02 13:13:45

I just heard from Chief Moore that he is planning to ask for a capital expenditure for tasers at the October town meeting after all. He says that the operating budget lacks sufficient funds for tasers. I applaud this opportunity for a public discussion, and it's always nice to work with Chief Moore.

Dianna Vosburg | 2015-05-02 06:18:18

Police dogs, tazers, ATV's, what next? Police drones? Surplus Homeland Security materiel? I'm not saying Holliston doesn't have problems, but I don't believe these things are required to ensure our safety. I appreciate all who serve our town but that does not mean we should rubber stamp every request. I am happy to support HPD's bona fide needs but a police department on steroids makes me nervous. It sends the wrong message and sets the new normal one step closer to a permanent climate of unreasoned fear. The police chief clearly wants to run a modern department based on state of the art standards, hence more tools for the tool box, extensive community outreach efforts and the like. For the most part I feel this is great. But we need to maintain the right balance. I'd encourage Hollistonians to support some middle ground, and I draw the line at overarming law enforcement. We need a police department that is built for the current and reasonably anticipated future needs of our town. No more and no less. To respond to a prior comment, The police are not the equivalent of the DPW. As citizens, we have a right to provide input on the standards of policing in our community. I support Dianna's call for discussion and a vote at town meeting.

Concerned Citizen | 2015-05-01 18:23:45

Hows that K-9 working out?

Bob | 2015-05-01 13:57:05

The Chief makes decisions about equipment for his officers, not citizens who have no training or exposure to the threats facing officers today. His decision should matter most. To those against it, If it was YOUR husband fighting with a deranged, strung out criminal, wouldn't you want them to have every option to protect themselves? Without needing to reach the point where they have to shoot and kill them and have it weigh on them forever??? I would.

mel | 2015-05-01 13:22:55

Do we discuss and vote, as a town, when the DPW needs a new shovel? Do we vote and discuss when Chief Cassidy needs a new fire hose? The first police baton (I prefer the term "billyclub") was used in 1856. If I go back and look at the minutes from town meetings during that era, will I see the results of a townwide vote? No. Because we entrust the individuals in those positions to make the decisions regarding the tools they need and use to do their job.

John | 2015-05-01 12:23:54

I agree this change should come up for a discussion and a vote at a Town Meeting, at least, before they are deployed in our community.

geoff | 2015-05-01 11:04:13

That's quite a horrifying description of the feeling of being tased that the article provides. But keep in mind that taser training generally includes officers that will be carrying the weapon to be tased themselves, so they know what it feels like. Just like they are sprayed with pepper spray before carrying that weapon. I'm not sure it's quite as torturous as described. Additionally note that the taser is at the same level of force as the baton - so the alternative to being tased, which may feel like being "hit by a 2x4", would be quite literally to be hit by a heavy metal rod.

Don't tase me bro' | 2015-05-01 10:04:31

JB is 100% spot on. Let's give these officers the tools they need to do their incredibly difficult job. I like that Chief Moore is being pro-active. Let's not wait until an incident occurs where one of our officers is forced to use his firearm, when a taser may have been an effective option. Let's not let the videos and images we see on TV cloud our judgement about police. An overwhemingly majority of them are good.

John | 2015-05-01 07:00:34

"I feel tasers should be used only as a last-resort alternative to lethal force" Well, in that case, then they should have them for when they need them.

Jean | 2015-05-01 06:18:18

JB, if we follow your logic, then it would be fine for the police (CIA, FBI, etc) to look at everything we do, because "freedom isn't free" and "it's not intrusive if you have nothing to hide".... as for tasers, it would be more informative if the breakdown of misuse of this weapon were to show rural vs suburban vs urban police forces. And if the HPD made policies for the use of Tasers, like not in the schools, for example. I'd also like to see a breakdown of how many times in a year a service weapon is used, and for what purpose (like taking care of injured deer/skunks).

Hungry Hippo | 2015-05-01 06:00:54

My initial reaction when I saw that the HPD wanted to purchase "Tasers" was surprise. My understanding is that Tasers are used in lieu of an officer having to draw his weapon and potentially killing a person (though as the article noted Tasers have caused deaths). Also according to Wikipedia officers have an increased proclivity to use their Tasers than they would ever have when they only had their firearm. So I must ask how often have any police officer in Holliston had to discharge their weapon in the line of duty in the last 5 years. If not I must ask why do we need to spend money on purchasing Tasers?

V Murphy | 2015-05-01 05:25:09

If everyone obeys the law and listens to the police officer when interacting with one, there would be no reason to use these ever, right? I don't disagree with some of the "hidden" or not-well advertised adverse effects of them, but this is a tool in the tool box while dealing with people that do not have good intentions. The individuals that choose to break the law and then act in a manner that a police officer would have to potential use a tool such as this to protect themselves and the public are choosing the "risk" that the police department is going to stop them. If you have had the opportunity to speak with the Chief and have learned some of what these professionals do to commit to their profession, then you should be comfortable putting their faith in their professionalism. This is not a toy for some fun on a Friday night, this is a tool to be used when it is NEEDED. If they have the money in their budget, all the better. It seems like a cheap purchase for the value and lets hope they are never used (other than training, which by the way I'm sure will be extensive) for everyone's sake. No police officer wants and hopes to be in a situation where this needs to be used.

JB | 2015-05-01 04:32:07