After less than a year on the job with Tasers, instances of use of force by the Massachusetts State Police has doubled.
Department officials say the data could be misleading, because the devices were never fired in many cases, but civil rights advocates warn an overreliance on stun guns by law enforcement across Massachusetts and the U.S. could be part of a trend in which police reach for a weapon instead of using their words.
Troopers in Massachusetts used force 402 times in 2016 compared with just 208 times in 2015, the data show.
Of the increase, Tasers accounted for 130 use-of-force incidents, but people were actually shocked with them only 25 times. Factoring in those numbers, use of force tallies are more in line with 2014 numbers, data show.
Every time a Taser gun is unholstered, pointed at someone, or the laser on the weapon is targeted, it counts as use of force, said David Procopio, state police spokesman.
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“This is the industry standard for recording use of force with an electronic control weapon,” he said.
Electronic control weapons, also called ECWs, are more commonly known by the brand name Taser. When a Taser gun is deployed it sends 50,000 volts of electricity into a person’s body for five seconds, rendering their muscles useless.
“In an ideal situation, and ECW is going to be a deterrent and persuade a suspect to just surrender, and that’s to the benefit of the trooper, the suspect, and to everyone,” he said. “We believe ECWs continue to increase safety for troopers and the public both because they are an effective, less lethal tool.”
State police spent $1 million on 900 of them to outfit all troopers in April.
“They are a tool that will help resolve hostile confrontations before they escalate into situations requiring lethal force,” State Police Colonel Richard McKeon said at the time.
But Carl Williams, staff attorney for ACLU Massachusetts, worries that access to ECWs might entice officers to skip the de-escalation tactics in favor of reaching for their Tasers.
“If Tasers are used instead of more lethal weaponry in general, that would be a good thing. Tasers used instead of police officers saying or commanding something or repeating a request for a third time, that’s a bad thing,” Williams said. “If the device’s existence tends to escalate force that’s a terrible thing.”
Across Massachusetts 230 law enforcement agencies or 6,500 officers carry Tasers.
A state report released in November shows steady increases in both the number of agencies using the weapons and the instances of officers using them.
Across the state, Tasers were fired in record high 619 cases in 2015, the year for which the most recent data is available through the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. There were 1,102 total incidents involving Tasers, up from 275 in 2010 when just 82 agencies were approved to carry the weapons.
The number of incidents has increased every year since 2010, but the report shows signs that the rate of growth is slowing.
From 2010 to 2011, ECW incidents grew by almost 90 percent. This rate of growth dropped to 61.4 percent the following year. Since end of 2013, rates of growth have not exceeded 13 percent. This is because since 2013, the number of approved agencies and trained officers has also grown.
Procopio, speaking for state police, said that simply possessing the Tasers does not necessarily lead to more use by his officers.
“We use a force continuum or ladder in which the type of force that is allowed escalates in direct correlation to the level of threat that a trooper or the pub is facing,” he said.
But Williams said it’s difficult to discern what recent studies are showing, as both the use of Tasers and the number of officers trained to use them grow.
“We haven’t done studies hard to access that kind of data,” he said.