{or words to that effect…}

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals came out with a Taser ruling that has everyone talking.  In the case, a police officer stopped a man for a seat belt violation.  While the facts are somewhat disputed, the officer ended up Tasering the young man while he was standing 20 feet away.  The young man was unarmed and acting weirdly, but not dangerously, and was not threatening the officer in any way.

Folks are beginning to weigh in on what is perceived to be the impact of this important case.  From, we learn that the case really doesn’t change anything or say anything new.  You can read the article on’s blog here.

Others think the case is far more significant.  Below is an article from WIREDmagazine which discusses the case and concludes that the case stands for the proposition that officers can no longer use Tasers simply as a behavior modification device to get people to do what they want.

I agree with Wired’s analysis.  A Taser is not a cattle prod designed to keep people moving in the direction police want them to move.  Rather, it is a substantial, painful, dangerous weapon that is a step below deadly force but more significant than a baton or the old “rubber hose!”  The court found that a Taser produces both psychological and physical pain when the barbs hit and the juice is delivered to the body of the target.

Here’s the WIRED article…

The use of Tasers has become increasingly controversial over the last year, following high-profile cases such as the Tasering of a 10-year-old girl who had refused to take a shower and video of a 72-year-old great-grandmother who was Tasered following a driving offense. Now a federal appeals court in San Francisco has set down new rules for when police officers are allowed to use Tasers. In particular, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Tasers can’t be used simply to force a non-violent person to bend to an officer’s will. The court’s reason was that Taser’s X26 stun gun inflicts more pain than other “non-lethal” options:

The physiological effects, the high levels of pain, and foreseeable risk of physical injury lead us to conclude that the X26 and similar devices are a greater intrusion than other non-lethal methods of force we have confronted.

The ruling followed a case in which an officer Tasered a man named Carl Bryan after pulling him over for driving with an unbuckled seat belt. Bryan was verbally abusive, but obviously unarmed and non-violent.

The use of Tasers as compliance tools — means for compelling behavior — has generated a huge amount of protest. For many, the famous “Don’t Tase me, bro” incident, in which student Andrew Meyer was Tasered at a political debate, signaled an alarming new form of oppression. (Others have accused Meyer of setting the whole thing up as a stunt.) Perhaps the distinguishing feature of the Taser, compared with other forms of enforcing compliance, is that it can be used with one finger. Police have always been able enforce their wishes using batons or manual force, but a Taser is a much easier option, and perhaps this makes it more prone to abuse. Whether it’s zapping an unruly student protester, an uncooperative 11-year-old or an abusive driver, the trite observation that power corrupts may have some truth here.

“It sounds like this court is attempting to raise the bar for non-lethal use of force,” retired Los Angeles Police Department Captain Greg Meyer told the Los Angeles Times. The ruling specifies that the Taser X26 and similar devices should only be used where there is “strong government interest [that] compels the employment of such force.” This rules out any situation in which there are alternative means of dealing with the situation. Some may see the new ruling as a great step forward for human rights. But there are reasons to be a little more cautious.

A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health looked at 24,000 cases in which police officers had used force, including Tasers, pepper spray, batons and manual methods. After controlling for factors such as the amount of resistance shown by the suspect, the study found that Taser use reduced the overall risk of injury by 65 percent. In other words, restricting Taser use could triple the number of injuries caused in this sort of incident.

It would be naïve to assume that there will not be any market response to the ruling. We have recently seen a rash of new devices aimed at police forces, including assorted laser dazzlers and pepper ball guns as Taser alternatives. There are also portable pain beams in prospect, both microwave and infrared laser varieties, not to mention various acoustic blasters. The ruling is likely to lead to more experimentation, both technical and in the courts, to find out just what the acceptable level of pain and suffering is and how it can best be delivered.

The ruling is also a potential boost for devices such as the LED Incapacitator, which does not rely on pain but other physiological effects (disorientation, loss of balance and nausea). Funding of more advanced non-lethal devices using assorted electromagnetic effects to paralyze or otherwise disable painlessly may also become more attractive.

Taser International is also likely to respond legally and technically. Having already developed several generations of Taser, the latest versions rely on muscular paralysis to incapacitate a target. The substantial pain is a side effect. A Taser that paralyzes without causing (perceived) pain would be an obvious avenue of research.

The new ruling is likely to have a significant effect on police on the streets. Many commentators will be watching evidence to support claims that it will make things better — or worse.

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