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electronic control devices such as Tasers among law enforcement has not seen a similarly widespread investigation into the effects of their use on citizens, criminals, and law enforcement officers themselves. One recent study, however, has attempted to rectify this gap in empirical knowledge by investigating the incident report records of the Washington State Patrol in order to determine the effects of electronic control devices on incident outcomes and the frequency of injuries. In their essay "Electronic control devices and use of force outcomes: Incidence and severity of use of force, and frequency of injuries to arrestees and police officers," Lin and Jones (2010) came to nuanced conclusions regarding the effectiveness of electronic control devices in reducing injuries, and by examining their study in more detail, it will become clear that the use of electronic control devices reduces officer injuries as well as citizens, as long as display-only cases are included in the analysis.
Lin and Jones make their purpose clear at the outset; noting that "electronic control device use among law enforcement agencies has become relatively commonplace" even as "questions concerning the devices' appropriate use, effectiveness, and potential for harm have remained largely unexamined," Lin and Jones set out "to address a deficit in the criminal justice literature by examining patterns of electronic control device (ECD) use and effectiveness as reflected in 1,188 official police use-of-force report records collected over a three-year period" (Lin & Jones, 2010, p. 152). The researchers used these report records to answer four specific questions: "What use of force methods were replaced by electronic control devices? Did the availability of electronic control devices reduce the rate of use of higher levels of force? How did officers rate the effectiveness of the electronic control device during officer-citizen encounters? Did the availability of electronic control devices decrease suspect and officer injury rates?" (Lin & Jones, p. 153). The researchers hypothesized that "the WSP [Washington State Patrol] should have experienced the replacement of higher levels of force with the electronic control device; on aggregate, lower levels of force should have been used by officers in the field; and a decrease in suspect and officer injury rates should be in clear evidence" (p. 153).
To conduct this study, the researchers consulted "official police officer use-of-force records, which are maintained by the Office of Professional Standards in the WSP for the three-year period 2005-2007," with an eye towards "three sets of outcome variables […] including: the types of force used by the officer; an assessment of the effectiveness for the force used; and the extent of injury sustained by the arrestee," with the first variable being limited to the last method used by the officer during the entire encounter, and "the individual encounter serving as the primary unit of analysis" (Lin & Jones, p. 156-157).
These records were ideal for this particular study because of the unique nature of the Washington State Patrol, because "the WSP is an agency known for high standards (perennial International Association of Chiefs of Police award winner) and selective recruitment which maintains accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA); this accreditation requires that such detailed records of use of force be maintained and independently audited periodically" (Lin & Jones, p. 156). Thus, while these records necessarily reflect a bias due to the fact that they were written and compiled by police officers, the standards regarding the maintenance of these records has ensured that the data used reflects the best possible option for evaluating the effects of electronic control devices on incident outcomes and injury rates.
The researchers used operational definitions in order to determine the type of force used, because while the modifiers "low" and "lethal" are easily understood, the classifications "moderate" and "intermediate" are more difficult to determine, "According to the WSP's use of force policy," these are the "four levels of force […] available to the officer" (Lin & Jones, p. 157). Because of the ambiguities present in these definitions, the researchers opted to classify the various uses of force into three operationally defined categories: "lethal force; non-lethal force - hands on; and non-lethal force - with weapons" (p. 157). The study is a hybrid of qualitative and quantitative methods; although the researchers draw their conclusions from the statistical analysis of police report records, the categorizations and definitions which inform that analysis are necessarily based on qualitative judgments regarding the various levels of force and extent of injuries.
Having considered the methods and definitions employed by the researchers, one may now consider the analysis and results stemming from this study. After accounting for a number of variables that might skew the results, such as citizen resistance and the difference between display-only cases and cases of actual deployment of ECDs, the researchers found answers to their initial questions that largely coincided with their hypotheses. In short, they found that "only the non-lethal force method categories were replaced by ECD," so that "only a possible decreasing trend was observed on lethal force," while "officers gave the device relatively high marks on effectiveness, although not the highest." Furthermore, "when determining whether the adoption of ECD as a use of force method by the WSP decreased arrestee and officer injury rates, it was found that ECD-involved cases had a lower arrestee injury rate than non-ECD involved cases," but this data shifted when differentiating between display-only cases, because "in the ECD deployed cases relatively high suspect injury rates were documented in 2007," although "with respect to officer injury rates, the evidence is rather convincing that the adoption of electronic control devices by the agency has led to fewer injuries to officers resulting from officer-arrestee confrontation" (Lin & Jones, p. 171).
The study uses inductive logic to determine that ECDs have replaced chemicals, personal weapons, and total limb control as uses of force, because although the police reports do not include ample explicit information regarding officers' decisions to use one method over another, the statistical changes in the different uses of force following adoption of ECDs suggests a connection (Lin & Jones, p. 161). In contrast, the researchers use deductive logic to demonstrate that ECDs have reduced officer injury rates, stating that if certain conditions were met, then ECDs would have been shown to decrease officer injury rates. The conditions were as follows: "the number of WSP officers did not change significantly during the 2003-2007 period; the injury rates were different in the pre- and post-ECD periods, and the post-ECD injury rate was lower; no other noteworthy event occurred during the same period when ECD was adopted by WSP; and the injury rate for ECD-issued officers was different from the rate for non-ECD issued officers" (Lin & Jones, p. 161, 163). The researchers note that these conditions were all met, such that "we may conclude that the adoption of ECD did indeed reduce the rate of officer injury to a noteworthy extent" (Lin & Jones, p. 163).
The researchers proposed a number of recommendations born out of the results from their study. The first "area of study that would benefit greatly from future investigation is police use of force decision-making as it relates to electronic control device use" because "it is important to determine what causes an officer to display vs. deploy the electronic control device," especially because display-only cases resulted in the most dramatic statistical reduction in injuries (Lin & Jones, p. 172). They further suggested research into citizens' attitudes and responses to ECDs and the use of force, because "it would be useful to determine whether citizens' attitudes concerning electronic control device use are influenced by media images or their own personal or acquaintance experiences, and how these two factors might affect a citizen's perception concerning the appropriate use of the device" (Lin & Jones, p. 173).
This could be especially important in light of the relative hysteria and misinformation concerning the use of ECDs, because "both favorable and unfavorable media images of police practices compete for public attention and serve as the backdrop against which the TASER is being appraised by the public and government officials" (Ready, White, & Fisher, 2008, p. 148). Finally, the researchers suggested investigation into "electronic control device use in the correctional setting," because it is not open to even the limited scrutiny provided by police reports (Lin & Jones, p. 173).
Although the study provides useful insights into the use of electronic control devices by police and suggests important areas for further inquiry, it nonetheless relies too heavily on police cooperation and ends up (openly, at least) biased in favor of police officers. Although the study acknowledges some of the human rights concerns of ECD use, by focusing on a single police force, the study conveniently did not have to account for those cases in which ECD use has resulted in extreme injury or death. Thus, the researchers would have done better to incorporate a broader array of research into their study, for instance recent investigations into the use of ECDs on the mentally ill…[continue]
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