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Geoffrey P. Alpert, Ph.D. - Use of Force and Conducted Energy Devices

What Is Use of Force?

Geoffrey P. Alpert Well, I think it's really important that agencies are able to manage their use of force protocols and not just policies. I think it's really important for agencies to understand that the use of force in the community is one of the most damning areas for them that if they use it wrong or if it comes out wrong it ruins trust, it ruins confidence, it erodes the relationship between the police and the community. So it's a really important thing that they need to understand.

Now, that said, many times force is necessary and it isn't the police officer for the most part who starts that process. Force really should be called "response to resistance" or some way to consider an attempt to take someone into control. Maybe "control and response to resistance" because for the most part it isn't a police officer just going out and using force. It's really trying to remove a threat and get someone under control.

Now, I think it's important to understand in terms of a policy, training, supervision and accountability. And each one of those is necessary but certainly not sufficient. You've got to have a very strong policy that's well known through training, that is supervised by a manager, and the officer is held accountable for the type of behavior that he or she exhibits.

[End of video clip]

Proper Use of CEDs

Alpert Well, a conducted energy device is a wonderful tool for law enforcement if used properly. Having been hit with one, I can tell you it's very painful. It takes away your muscle control. If used properly and when officers are trained to cuff someone under power, if they're trained to reevaluate once they've used it to see if it's really effective and what's next, again it's an innovation in law enforcement that is really a positive one to reduce injuries to officers and the suspects.

Now, the problem comes in when these devices are used improperly, when they're used to punish someone, when they're used when they don't have to. And the research that we conducted that was funded by the National Institute of Justice showed that in many cases, we have some very lazy officers out there who go to their Taser far too early in an encounter and far too often. And I think that's what gets the attention of the advocacy groups. It's the deaths that are associated with the use of a CED that get the attention of these groups, and that's what has to be stopped.

I think, again, that it's a great tool. How do you use it properly? Well, you use it when nothing else is going to work. You use it obviously as an alternative to deadly force, but even to fend off a threat of active aggression, and I think that becomes a very important tool to do so, but officers have to understand that when you use this tool, people will fall down, people will injure themselves, and it's got to be used against a limited number of people in a limited number of circumstances. And our research showed that it was used too often. And I think that's a training and a supervision and, again, an accountability issue. I'm assuming they knew when they could use it and just went to it because it was easier, went to it because they didn't want to get their hands on someone.

And you know I hear the argument all the time, "Well we had no option. This was all we could do." But it makes me think, well what'd they do before Tasers? Would this person not have been a good police officer because he didn't want to have hands on, he didn't want to grab this person and maybe wrestle with them? That's what they all did prior to use of the CED.

[End of video clip]

Training Is Key to Knowing When to Use a CED

Alpert: Well, that's a good question because used properly, it boils down to the reasonableness standard and boils down to using a level of force that may be a little bit above the suspect but not overwhelmingly and also includes not using any type of force to punish someone.

So I think it's a training issue. I think officers have to be trained to understand what they're facing. How do you deal with a threat? They've all been through defensive tactics. They've all been through learning how to fight and learning how to use their hands and be able to control a suspect. They've got to understand that the CED is a tool that they bring out when those don't work or when there's a chance that they'll get hurt if the other person is already being aggressive.

So I think it's a training issue. A proper use of a CED is when a suspect is being aggressive, is threatening you as a police officer or someone else and has a means to carry out that threat, and there's a likelihood that somebody's going to get hurt if you don't use that CED against them.

[End of video clip]

Lessons for Law Enforcement Executives About Use of Force

Alpert Well, I think lesson number one is we've got to protect our officers and we've got to provide them with the tools and the training to use those tools so they can reduce any kind of injury as much as possible. But that doesn't mean giving them free rein to injure or abuse citizens and I think they owe the citizens that type of response where they're using the least amount of force necessary.

So my advice to the police chief is to look at your management program, make sure your policy is current, make sure your training is sufficient. Not just what the manufacturer tells you to do, but what you want your officers to do. And I think with guidance from different associations and what we know about these devices I think that can be done fairly easily. I think you need to make sure that your supervisor is active and keeps up with his or her officers. And finally, is that accountability feature. If an officer is using force more than other officers in that situation or using higher levels of force than other officers in those situations, then there has to be some accountability in terms of oversight, in terms of audit, in terms of analysis of what is going on with that officer. Is it a problem, or is it simply a function of where he's working or where she's working and the type of people with whom he or she is coming into contact?

[End of video clip]

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  • Playlist of the complete four-part interview with Geoffrey Alpert
  • Part 1: What Is Use of Force?
  • Part 2: Proper Use of CEDs
  • Part 3: Training Is Key to Knowing When to Use a CED
  • Part 4: Lessons for Law Enforcement Executives About Use of Force

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March 2012
Geoffrey P. Alpert, Professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina

Dr. Alpert discusses police use of force and conducted energy devices. Segments include:

  • What Is Use of Force?
  • Proper Use of CEDs
  • Training Is Key to Knowing When to Use a CED Lessons for Law Enforcement Executives About Use of Force

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Date created: March 12, 2012