NYCLU Analysis Finds Misuse of Tasers by Police Across NY State

October 19, 2011 —  Police officers throughout New York State are consistently misusing and overusing Tasers, according to a report released today by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The report, Taking Tasers Seriously: The Need for Better Regulation of Stun Guns in New York, analyzes 851 Taser incident reports from eight police departments across the state as well as 10 departments’ policies and guidelines for using the weapons, which deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity and have caused the deaths of more than a dozen New Yorkers in recent years.

The NYCLU’s analysis found that an absence of sound policies, training and guidelines to direct the lawful use of Tasers is contributing to the disturbing pattern of misuse and overuse of the weapons and putting New Yorkers at risk.

“Our analysis shows that police officers are using Tasers in inappropriate, irresponsible and downright deadly manner,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “This disturbing pattern of misuse and abuse endangers lives. Law enforcement agencies that choose to use Tasers must adopt clear and effective policies governing their use, and they must do so without delay.”

Among the NYCLU’s findings:

  • Nearly 60 percent of reported Taser incidents did not meet expert-recommended criteria that limit the weapon’s use to situations where officers can document active aggression or a risk of physical injury.
  • Fifteen percent of incident reports indicated clearly inappropriate Taser use, such as officers shocking people who were already handcuffed or restrained.
  • Only 15 percent of documented Taser incidents involved people who were armed or who were thought to be armed, belying the myth that Tasers are most frequently used as an alternative to deadly force.
  • More than one-third of Taser incidents involved multiple or prolonged shocks, which experts link to an increased risk of injury and death.
  • More than a quarter of Taser incidents involved shocks directly to subjects’ chest area, despite explicit warnings by the weapon’s manufacturer that targeting the chest can cause cardiac arrest.
  • In 75 percent of incidents, no verbal warnings were reported, despite expert recommendations that verbal warnings precede Taser firings.
  • 40 percent of the Taser incidents analyzed involved at-risk subjects, such as children, the elderly, the visibly infirm and individuals who are seriously intoxicated or mentally ill.
  • People of color are overwhelmingly represented in Taser incidents. Of all incidents in which race was recorded, 58 percent involved blacks or Latinos.

With the exception of the NYPD’s Taser guidelines, the policies studied do not comply with the recommendations of national law enforcement experts that have developed model policies for Taser use. The vast majority of the law enforcement agencies appear to rely exclusively on training materials provided by TASER International, the weapon’s manufacturer—an approach that experts widely condemn.

The NYCLU found that most law enforcement agencies studied are not properly monitoring or supervising the use of Tasers. The incident reports the NYCLU analyzed showed grossly inconsistent and incomplete record keeping.

“Police departments are not collecting complete and consistent data on Taser incidents, creating a serious barrier to meaningful oversight,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, the report’s primary author. “Accurate and complete reporting of all Taser incidents is essential to holding officers accountable and to protecting the public. As it is, the data currently available paints a very troubling picture.”

The NYCLU makes the following three recommendations to policy makers, and state and local law enforcement officials:

  • Law enforcement agencies throughout the state must reform use-of-force polices and Taser training programs to comply with nationally recognized expert guidelines.
  • The state government must play an active role in promoting and achieving universal adoption of these expert-recommended policies and guidelines, and in ensuring that local agencies coordinate their Taser policies and training programs.
  • The state government and local law enforcement agencies must require accurate, complete reporting and robust monitoring of Taser use.

The NYCLU’s analysis covers the following law enforcement agencies: Albany Police Department, the Glens Falls Police Department, the Greece Police Department, the Guilderland Police Department, the Monroe County Sheriff ’s Office, the Nassau County Police Department, the Rochester Police Department, the Saratoga Springs Police Department, the Suffolk County Police Department, the Syracuse Police Department and the NYPD.