In a little noticed annoucement just before Labor Day weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that some correction officers, who do not carry guns, would soon be allowed to expand their armament from the typical baton and pepper spray. In the coming weeks they’ll be issued stun guns like Tasers, the most common brand.
It may seem like a strange move for the troubled jail facility, now operating under a court order after a federal lawsuit regarding excessive use of force. A 2014 U.S. Attorney General report found a “deep-seated culture of violence,” in particular directed at youth inmates.
The correction supervisors who will now be allowed to use these weapons, which emit shock-inducing probes attached to wires, are part of an expansion of their use both nationwide and here in NYC. As the use of Tasers grows, there has been limited scrutiny of their usage, which some advocates say are being dangerously misused.
New York City already has evidence casting doubt on Tasers
One potential test case for Taser use is the NYPD, which now has more than 10 times more stun guns in use than a decade ago. There have been a number of high-profile deaths associated with stun guns, including that of an erratically behaving man in the Bronx in 2015.
The increase in NYPD usage of stun guns led the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent city watchdog agency, to investigate their use, according to one of its authors Janos Marton.
The report was finished in spring 2016 and sent to the NYPD, but never made public. The CCRB did not comment on its findings and when queried about the report Wednesday said it planned to release them “in the coming weeks.”
But Marton, who left the agency to join the criminal justice advocacy group JustLeadership, described some of its draft contents and findings to amNewYork as they relate to jail use.
“Our look at NYPD Taser use found that there are many ways in which more training is needed or Taser use is more dangerous than it may appear. Many of those conditions are exacerbated in the jail setting,” he says.
The use of Tasers at close quarters, for example, can be “dangerous not only to the person being tased, but also to other members of law enforcement who can be hit by the dart,” says Marton. That can occur “with greater frequency in a jail setting than it does on the street.”
Other potential problems with the devices include it causing the tased individual to fall on a hard surface after their temporary paralysis, or the device’s use on an emotionally disturbed person who might not have the capacity to report the incident.
“Tasers are most effective for immobilizing violent people who are unresponsive to other forms of restraint,” says Marton. “But the risk is when people with Tasers use them out of fear of actual violence or just in response to verbal aggressiveness like yelling or even talking back to an officer.” This is often more likely with younger, less experienced officers, a concern after the NYPD expanded its Taser program.
As of now and for the foreseeable future, the Department of Corrections is only deploying a small number of Tasers to supervisors in the elite Emergency Services Unit, who also will be receiving extra training. But chemical agents like pepper spray were once confined to supervisors, too, according to Martin Horn, a former commissioner. Now pepper spray is deployed widely.
Do the benefits justify the risks?
Both Horn and Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte see Tasers as a new tool, not an expansion of force.
Correction officers already have access to batons, helmets, chemical agents and stun shields — even guns stored off-site. Tasers will be a “safer alternative,” and used sparingly as part of a “continuum of force,” says Ponte, adding that the situations in which Tasers are used would be ones in which a use of force would happen anyway. Better temporary paralysis than lengthy minutes of struggling or a blow to the head.
Ponte has made environmental and educational reforms at Rikers that have decreased violence both to and from inmates, according to agency statistics. Yet slashings island-wide rose this year, and the problem of violence behind bars continues.
Ponte says some other jails that introduced the devices have seen decreases in violence.
Yet even the Correction Department’s policy for using the devices acknowledges the dangers, citing the potential for Tasers to be mistaken as guns and the increased risk of killing an inmate in an elevated position. They say that Tasers “should not generally be deployed” against those in a state of “excited delirium” or with a history of stimulant abuse.
If they need such strict restrictions, are the combustible weapons worth the potential for increased force in already-violent jails?
One intriguing part of the deployment is that all devices will be equipped with cameras, which turn on automatically with use.
So maybe the Tasers will show their own worth. But we may be in danger of downplaying the risks associated with the devices. Rather than avoiding this volatile weapon entirely, we’ll now have to watch the tape.