Correction: The article below incorrectly stated that in 2005, Chicago police accidentally killed a 14-year-old in a residential treatment center with a stun gun. The youth suffered a heart attack, but lived.
Ever since Miami police drew flak for using a stun gun on an unruly 6-year-old student in 2004, and Chicago police accidentally killed a 14-year-old in a residential treatment center with a stun gun the next year, law enforcement and medical organizations have struggled to decide if the devices should be used on children. Except for a few places – like Dalton, Ga., where the police department has all but banned such use – the question remains far from settled.
Two recent reports have provided a little guidance: Last year the National Institute of Justice reported that stun guns should be “avoided” with small children unless no reasonable alternatives exist, and this year the American College of Emergency Physicians concluded that the use of stun guns “against smaller individuals should be undertaken judiciously.”
That leads to a question that arose last month in Ozark, Ark.: If a woman wants her 10-year-old daughter out of the house because the child is going berserk, and a policeman grabs the girl to take her to a youth shelter, only to get kicked in the groin, is it judicious to use a stun gun on her because he’s out of reasonable alternatives?
That policeman decided yes. Just like the officer in Warren, Mich., who used a stun gun in April on a 16-year-old who was running away from police, after the car in which he was a passenger was pulled over for having an expired license plate. The youth died. He was the second Michigan teen to be killed this year by a police-fired Taser (the brand name).
Policies on using stun guns on youths vary among states, cities and police departments, with many leaving the decision in the hands of the officer who is dealing with an out-of-control youth. According to http://LawyersandSettlements.com, a legal news service, at least 211 U.S. children were shocked by stun guns from 2002 to 2005. In Miami, police reported “at least 31 deployments on individuals 17 years of age or younger since 2003,” according to the study released this year by the emergency room physicians group.
Despite the controversies over using such weapons, youth workers who have faced large and angry teenagers know that the youths’ ability to do harm can be very adult-like. Stun guns can be a safer alternative to regular guns, batons, chemical sprays, canines and physical restraint by adults. They fire dart-like electrodes to deliver electrical shocks that disrupt voluntary muscle control.
But what action by a young person should trigger stun gun use? Are some cases clearly over the line, because of the age and size of the child?
Consider last month’s incident.
It began, as these incidents often do, with a report of an unruly youth: A woman called the Ozark police and told them her daughter was out of control. According to the Associated Press report, “the officer found the girl on the floor of the house screaming and crying. She refused to follow her mother’s instructions and the mother told [the officer] to use his Taser.”
The report says the officer carried the girl to the living room “and told her she was going to jail” unless she calmed down. The girl was “violently kicking” and struck the officer “in the groin with her legs and feet.”
The officer’s report states that he administered a “very, very brief” stun with the Taser, handcuffed the girl and took her to the Western Arkansas Youth Shelter, which is run under state contract by the nonprofit Comprehensive Juvenile Services. (The typical Taser shot lasts five seconds, according to the manufacturer, Taser International.)
The incident drew heavy media attention and ignited debate among locals. The police chief defended his officer. The girl’s father (who does not live with the mother) told “40/29 TV” in Arkansas that his daughter appears to have some emotional issues, but she “doesn’t deserve to be treated like a dog.”
Studies about stun gun safety have found that serious injuries and death are rare, but that in some places, lack of training and guidelines have contributed to inappropriate use and worse-than-expected injuries. Some organizations have issued guidelines about the use of stun guns or other “conducted energy devices” (CDEs):
• After the incident involving the 6-year-old boy, the Miami-Dade Police Department revised its policies to say officers must consider “a suspect’s age, size and perceived fighting ability before using a Taser,” according a 2005 report by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
• In 2004, the Dalton, Ga., police department adopted a policy prohibiting the use of Tasers on, among others, “children under 14 years of age and/or weighing less than 90 pounds,” except for “exigent circumstances.”
• The National Institute of Justice study last year (Deaths Following Electro-Muscular Disruption) found that because “the purported safety margins of CDE deployment on normal healthy adults may not be applicable in small children,” as well as with the elderly and some other populations, their use “should be avoided but may be necessary if the situation excludes other reasonable options.” The study does not define “small.”
• The study released this year by the emergency room physicians, which called for judicious consideration before using Tasers on smaller people, said that because the impact of the device is stronger as the weight of the target declines, “the use of the Taser against smaller adults and children may pose a greater risk of harm than use against larger suspects.”
• In February, the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth in Ontario, Canada, called for a ban on police use of stun guns on minors unless someone’s life is in danger, after officers used a stun gun on a 15-year-old girl in her detention cell. Police said the girl attacked them.
Taser International said it issues no specific guidelines involving age or size. Spokesman Steve Tuttle said via e-mail: “We all certainly agree that children need to be protected to the greatest degree possible. However, situations can arise where law enforcement officers must subdue minors in order to prevent them from harming themselves or others. … It is up to the individual agencies to determine and set forth use of force policies and guidelines.”
Contact: Taser International (800) 978-2737, http://www.taser.com.