Electronic Control Devices: Liability Issues

National Police Training
September 10, 2012 — 1,622 views  
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Over the past decade, many law enforcement agencies have adopted electronic control devices (ECDs), also known as electronic control weapons (ECWs), as part of their policing strategy. Devices such as tasers and other electronic stun guns can be highly effective in subduing and controlling violent subjects. However, the use of ECDs is not without risks. Law enforcement officials who are considering adopting ECDs as part of their department's equipment outfit should carefully weigh the following liability concerns.

It is important to remember that, even though ECDs have been defined as a less-than-lethal force, police officers must carefully follow Constitutional restrictions regarding inhumane treatment when using ECDs. The failure to do so may lead to major liability issues.

Risk of Serious Injury

On the whole, ECDs cause very few serious injuries. However, individuals who are repeatedly subjected to an ECD may have seizures or sustain brain damage. It is important that officers avoid using such devices repeatedly. In most cases, one application of an ECD will be sufficient to control a subject. 

Risk of Death

While ECDs are considered less-than-lethal, they do on occasion cause death. The risks of death are especially high in subjects with pre-existing medical conditions. Other risks of death associated with ECDs are very low. However, if such devices are used repeatedly and improperly, they may be linked to subject death. This is generally only the case in extreme interrogation situations, where such devices are being used outside Constitutional bounds. 

Exacerbation of Existing Medical Conditions

Individuals who suffer from epilepsy and other nervous-system problems may face an increased susceptibility to serious injury due to ECD deployment. This can be one of the hardest risk factors for police departments to manage as officers are generally unaware of existing medical conditions from which a subject may suffer. In general, ECDs should not be used on elderly subjects or the mentally ill. 

Unwarranted or Unjust Use 

Police officers who use poor decision-making skills when deploying an ECD may be accused of using undue force. Such instances may result in civil rights suits being filed against a police department or an individual officer. 

It is absolutely imperative that law enforcement officers receive comprehensive training regarding the use of ECDs. An effective training program cuts down on the liability issues connected with ECD use and protects a police agency in the case that an individual officer uses poor judgment when deploying an ECD. 

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