Eric Harris, an unarmed, black 44-year-old man, was pinned down on April 2 by multiple officers when one of them yelled, "Taser!" But the sound that followed wasn't the typical click-clack of a stun gun — it was the distinct blast of an actual bullet, which hit Harris, fatally wounding him. Robert Bates, the white, 73-year-old reserve Tulsa County, Oklahoma, deputy who fired his gun instead of his Taser, almost immediately realized his mistake, saying, "I shot him! I'm sorry!"
Harris's death has drawn national attention because Bates, who's now been charged with second-degree manslaughter, shot an unarmed suspect who was already on the ground. But less frequently asked is whether Bates should have even tried to use his stun gun at all, given that Harris was already restrained by multiple police officers. Did Harris really present a threat that required extra force?
Law enforcement experts have increasingly criticized how police use stun guns in recent years, particularly as police use of force comes under mounting scrutiny following the deaths of unarmed black men like Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
When stun guns were first introduced to police forces over the past few decades, they were originally designed and marketed as strictly nonlethal devices that could be used in place of a gun to incapacitate a violent suspect without deadly force. But it turns out the devices can kill, even when used against otherwise healthy targets.
Yet cops have continued using stun guns as if they're nonlethal weapons, including in situations where a suspect, such as Harris, is being apprehended and doesn't appear to pose a threat to others.
The misuse and deadly risks of Tasers have pushed some law enforcement experts to question whether cops are too trigger-happy with stun guns. "It's what we call the 'lazy cop syndrome,'" Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on police training at the University of South Carolina, said. "Sometimes cops go to Tasers too early and too often."
Stun guns are sometimes used to restrain suspects — but they can kill
In February, deputies used a stun gun on Natasha McKenna, a mentally ill woman at the Fairfax County, Virginia, jail who, according to the Washington Post's Tom Jackman and Justin Jouvenal, was restrained with handcuffs, leg shackles, and a mask. When the officers couldn't get McKenna to bend her knees to sit on a restraint chair, one of them delivered four shocks from a Taser. Within minutes, McKenna stopped breathing and died.
Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid told the Post the department defended the use of a Taser on a restrained prisoner, saying it was meant to gain compliance from McKenna without resorting to physical force. This appears to be the norm: previous surveys found that police department policies generally allow officers to use Tasers to help restrain someone who's physical with an officer, even if the suspect isn't actually attacking.
But police training experts are increasingly skeptical of using stun guns in this way, in large part because cases like McKenna's show that these weapons can sometimes kill.
"She wasn't a threat; she wasn't going anywhere; she was restrained," Richard Lichten, a use-of-force expert and former jail official in Los Angeles, told the Post. "It feels excessive, unnecessary and out of policy, based on what you're telling me."
Part of the problem with excessive stun gun use by officers is it can be very hard to tell whether someone is susceptible to death from a Taser blast. Sometimes the devices kill people because of health conditions or drug use that an officer may not be aware of. Other times, it could be just unfortunate aim — a study in the American Heart Association's journal documented cases in which hitting someone in the chest with a stun gun could cause cardiac arrest. Many of these risks can fall out of an officer's control or knowledge — and those uncertain variables, experts argue, should inspire some extra caution in using the potentially deadly devices.
Experts argue Tasers should only be used against violent threats
Thomas Nolan, a criminologist at the Merrimack College of Massachusetts and a former union official, said the use of a stun gun on someone like McKenna, who was already restrained, exposes the problem with how officers deploy the weapons today.
"When officers are using this to gain compliance, that's at odds with what the original intention of acquiring these weapons was," Nolan said, referencing his time in the force, when stun guns were obtained to substitute deadly force. "Would we consider using deadly force on someone who's restrained? Absolutely not. If someone is restrained, I don't see what the purpose could possibly be of administering a Taser shock."
Instead of using stun guns in response to verbal confrontations or to make restraining someone easier, experts argue the weapons should be used when someone presents a violent but not immediately deadly threat to someone else. This would put the stun gun somewhere between the baton, which is normally used by officers to gain compliance or restrain someone, and actual firearms, which are intended to quickly incapacitate a deadly threat.
"A Taser is a tool you use when someone is being actively aggressive," Alpert of the University of South Carolina said. "Cops can't just use a Taser on everyone because someone clenches a fist and says, 'I'm going to beat you up.'"
Tod Burke, a former Maryland police officer and a professor of criminal justice at Radford University, said it's up to officers to gauge case-by-case circumstances, such as whether a suspect presents a threat or is violently resisting arrest, before using a stun gun.
"You can't go around saying, 'I'm afraid I'm going to get hurt, so I'm going to Taser someone,'" Burke said. "It's what the officer is perceiving at that moment, at that instant, that makes them believe a Taser is the most effective mean of incapacitating that person to affect an arrest."
The problem is that the officer's judgment, especially in situations that require split-second decisions, isn't always right — and it can result in someone using a weapon that wasn't necessary to diffuse a situation, and may get someone killed. Those possibilities should get police departments, experts argued, to rethink their training and oversight policies.
Stun guns "are being used far more frequently than policymakers and police administrators originally envisioned," Nolan said. "If the same level of scrutiny was used in these use-of-force incidents as was applied to deadly use-of-force incidents, I think that would be a disincentive to using these Tasers as default self-defense weapons."