The increasing risk of less-than-lethal weapons

By » Thu, November 24 2011

us davis pepper spray 450x300 The increasing risk of less than lethal weapons

In 2009, the Department of Justice published a study on the lethality of less-than-lethal weapons, mostly the combined use of pepper spray and Tasers. It isn’t very condemning. About the only thing they call for is a wider adoption of standards, training, and conditioning before issuing or using less-than-lethal weapons.

Guidelines, for now, are on an agency-by-agency basis, with no or few laws to indicate to law enforcement how and when to use less-than-lethal weapons.*

Their investigation of about 1300 cases yielded three deaths. Taser use makes up the majority of cases, and all the cases come from the Bureau of Prisons, the ATF, and the US Marshals Service–not police. Anyway, the DOJ claim is that less-than-lethal weapons are highly effective, with 99.75% survival rate, and the three deaths were ruled to be secondary (fall down go boom) as opposed to the Taser stopping the person’s heart.

Even if that figure is true, if that same combination of pepper spray and tasing were used to disperse the occupists, it would mean deaths in the low dozens.

But it doesn’t seem likely that the DOJ study cast a wide enough net; according to Amnesty International, between 2001 and 2007 there were 245 deaths following tasings. Out of how many I can’t say, but the sheer variety of deaths in the AI study makes the DOJ study seem inadequate to say the least. And those numbers only reflect cases where Tasers were used; they are not contaminated with examples of pepper spray usage or open hand or baton techniques. The number of deaths between 2007 and today are similar. Despite this, the industry standard belief is that Tasers have a 1-in-1000 chance of being fatal (taking into account Tasers as both a primary and secondary cause of death).

teen dies after police use taser on him The increasing risk of less than lethal weapons

Pepper spray can also result in fatalities. In 1995, the ACLU compiled data from over 16,000 pepper-sprayings by California law enforcement and department of corrections officers and found that the fatality rate was about 1 in 600. When used “as indicated” pepper, or oleoresin capsicum spray, from five feet away, for a duration of one second, is safe, but sometimes not a deterrent. When used as we’ve seen it used, sprayed at point-blank, continuously, people choke to death on it–it will shut down your respiratory system.

(Incidentally, the EPA requires that bear spray be between 1 and 2% pepper, no higher. Pepper spray for use on people can be as high as 30%.)

One thing that is absolutely clear is that people do die from getting tased, and they do die from getting pepper sprayed, unlike what the DOJ study indicates. You don’t have to look too far to see evidence of that.

The chance of dying goes up exponentially when multiple Tasers are used on the same person. That might seem unlikely, but it’s not uncommon and a result of training. Police are taught that when one cop shoots, all cops need to open fire, too. Because the manual of arms between guns and Tasers is similar, many police departments don’t train officers to shoot them differently.

sw1 DD 3 2 2011 The increasing risk of less than lethal weapons

Yes that is an array of 54 Tasers designed to be deployed on crowds.

Law enforcement agencies love them some less-than-lethal weapons. They’re cheap, they’re easy to use, and they lower the physical risk to officers. The number of injuries has gone down dramatically for the police, and also for the policed. (This assumes that chemical burns and arrhythmia are not injuries.) And they’re basically unregulated; there are no practical risks, legal or job-related, for misuse or abuse, so they’re getting used in increasing numbers.

And that shifts the risk away from law enforcement towards civilians. It lowers the officer’s risk of injury but increases the civilian’s risk of death. Using the industry-standard one-in-a-thousand chance that a tasing results in death means that police have adopted Tasers for a much wider variety of uses, not just situations where risk of violence or injury is high, because to the individual officer, the chance that a tasing will be lethal is perceived as insignificant. Combined with a lack of guidelines, this guarantees growth in using less-than-lethal weapons, and corresponding fatalities.

So the smart thing then is to not get pepper sprayed, or tased, because there is a non-zero chance that you will die, and avoid things that might get you pepper sprayed or tased, because the chance that a police officer will use one or the other on you is only going up.

*And without any scientific testing of short- and long-term effects of less-than-lethal weapons, any laws would be based on conjecture. I’m not sure if that means we should hold off.

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