Stun guns not safe for citizens, but benefit police, study finds

May 1, 2012, Michigan State University

The use of stun guns by police significantly increases the chances of citizen injury, yet also protects the officers more than other restraint methods, according to the most comprehensive research to date into the safety of stun guns in a law enforcement setting.

William Terrill, lead researcher on the project and Michigan State University criminologist, said the federally funded research presents a dilemma for police agencies weighing use of the controversial weapon. Nationally, some 260,000 electronic control devices, or stun guns, are in use in 11,500 .

"The findings are quite complex, in that citizen injuries increased but officer injuries decreased," Terrill said. "Police agencies have to balance the findings. They have to consider whether this is a trade-off they can accept."

Stun guns deliver a painful and immobilizing through two prongs that are pressed directly against the suspect or through two barb-tipped wires shot from the weapon.

The majority of previous research generally has found stun guns to be non-harmful to those on the receiving end.

Terrill said some previous studies have been anecdotal or misleading. After a incident, the officer notes on his report whether the suspect was injured. Yet some researchers, for the purposes of their studies, changed the officer's ruling if they considered the injury minor – such as a laceration or a burn from the stun gun – which effectively "changes the rules" of objective research, Terrill said.

Through the MSU-led research, funded by the National Institute of Justice, the criminologists studied stun gun incidents in a sampling of mid-sized to large U.S. cities over a period of nearly four years. The researchers spent a month in each of the cities, which include Columbus, Ohio, Portland, Ore., and Knoxville, Tenn. All police departments in the study used the Taser gun made by Arizona-based Taser International.

The findings were reported in two studies:

  • In the first study, which appears in the current print issue of Justice Quarterly, the researchers found citizens were injured 41 percent of the time when officers used a stun gun only during apprehension. By contrast, citizens were injured only 29 percent of the time when no stun gun was used. (When stun guns were used with another restraint method, such as pepper spray or wresting the suspect to the ground, citizens were injured 47 percent of the time.) The study looked at 13,913 use-of-force cases in seven cities. The researchers took into account a host of factors, including the amount of citizen resistance, influence of alcohol or drugs, and officer experience. Injuries ranged from cuts to broken bones.
  • In the second study, online now in Police Quarterly, the researchers found officers were injured 5 percent of the time when using a stun gun only. By contrast, officers were injured nearly 10 percent of the time when no stun gun was used. The study looked at 12,455 use-of-force cases in six cities.

Terrill said the most important factor in use-of-force cases is the officer's safety. At the same time, he said stun guns may not be the "panacea" as many believe.

"There has been this increased perception that these devices are effective and safe," Terrill said. "But in terms of safeness, our data conclusively shows they are not safe to citizens. Now, are there concerns to the point that we're recommending that agencies not use them? Absolutely not. We think there needs to be more careful analysis done, and it has to be done in a way that's fair and objective."

The next step is determining how effective stun guns are in subduing a suspect, something Terrill and colleagues are analyzing.

Terrill's fellow researchers are Eugene Paoline from the University of Central Florida and Jason Ingram of Illinois State University.

Explore further: Taser issues advisory on use of stun guns

Related Stories

Evidence that stun guns may stimulate the heart

May 2, 2008

On the eve of the British Columbia inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski, a review of scientific data in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) finds that in some cases, stun guns may stimulate the heart in experimental ...

Taser unveils multi-shot stun gun

July 28, 2009

Manufacturers of the Taser stun gun on Monday unveiled a new handheld weapon on Monday which is capable of shocking three people without having to reload.

Recommended for you

Crowds within crowd found to outperform 'wisdom of the crowd'

January 18, 2018

A team of researchers affiliated with institutions in Argentina, the U.S. and Germany has found that there is a way to improve on the "wisdom of the crowd"—separate the people in a given crowd into smaller groups and let ...

Study sheds new light on ancient human-turkey relationship

January 17, 2018

For the first time, research has uncovered the origins of the earliest domestic turkeys in ancient Mexico. The study also suggests turkeys weren't only prized for their meat—with demand for the birds soaring with the Mayans ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.7 / 5 (3) May 01, 2012
Ok, safer or less safe compared to what alternative method of subduing a suspect?

Bare fists only?
Billy clubs?
Pepper spray only?

I have seen cases where any one of those three were used and I disagreed with their use.

If a heckler at a speech is out of hand, but not being violent or threatening, you get two or three guys and escort him out of the area. He has a freedom of speech, but not the freedom to disrupt everyone else's events.

Stun Guns and Billy clubs, even where legal, should not be used unless the suspect is an immediate physical threat to officers or bystanders.

And no, an unarmed heckler who instinctively throws a punch out of anger or confusion when 4 officers jump him is NOT a threat to the officers. Anybody in that situation would probably do the same.

If the officers can't subdue one unarmed guy with some bare hands submissions and handcuffs in a 3 or 4 vs 1 situation, maybe they need to find a new job.
2.3 / 5 (6) May 01, 2012
Fuck the pigs!
2.5 / 5 (4) May 01, 2012

I agree with all your points except for the last two.
2.6 / 5 (5) May 01, 2012
Its very hard to subdue a strong man who is under influence of drugs, cause he feels no pain at all mostly.
3 / 5 (2) May 01, 2012
The police are supposed to be here for our benefit. We are not here for their benefit. If cops don't like it, they should get a new job!
3 / 5 (4) May 01, 2012
I especially agree with lurkers last two points!
not rated yet May 02, 2012
Any reasonable and adult minded individual can understand the need for police. The job focuses on controlling and defusing situations that can quickly get out of control. I have met quite a few police, both within the law and outside the law (in my younger, more foolish days...) 99 out of 100 were professional, always, in any job there is at least one not suited to the job.
I am convinced that in almost every case of injury, direct orders intended to "get a handle on it" were not obeyed. When they say "freeze!", freeze. When they say "hands up!" put your hands up. Pretty simple. Children who have failed to grasp the concept of authority are the one's that precipitate injurious action in most (not all) cases. Chardo137 is a perfect example of an immature mind that will most likely, at some point suffer injury at the hands of police and after an epiphany of truth, realize he brought it on himself. I have had several "brushes with the Law" and have NEVER been abused. Why? I do as told.
not rated yet May 02, 2012
"What we've got here... is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it... well, he gets it."-Stother Martin
Cool Hand Luke 1967.
Lurker, an unarmed heckler who throws a punch? How'd you know he was unarmed? He already demonstrated aggression and if he IS armed, the situation can turn deadly in LESS than a heartbeat. When you put yourself in the cop's shoes, what would YOU do? As for me, I'd want to neutralize any chance of injury to myself, my partners (if any are present) or surrounding innocents FASTER than the possible threat can be realized. Many people think law enforcement is a kind of contest or game. It isn't. Act reasonably, be treated reasonably. Pretty simple really.
5 / 5 (1) May 02, 2012
An obvious confounder would be that the cases were no stun gun was used tended to be less violent (and less requiring of a stun gun). Hence, it would be trivially obvious that they also involved less injury. Therefore, the cited study appears flawed and meaningless.

3 / 5 (2) May 06, 2012
Give the cops a break! If the suspect still got an arm, he is armed!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.