Taser-toting police officers use more force than their unarmed counterparts, a new study reveals — but it’s not necessarily their choice.

Lego police.

Image via Pixabay.

New research studying the activity of London police officers show that those carrying visible electroshock (and likely any) weapons were more likely to be assaulted. Overall, they had to use force during these interventions 48% more often than on unarmed shifts, the study explains. While ‘use of force’ includes everything from restraint and handcuffing to CS spray, the Tasers themselves were only fired twice during the year-long study period, the authors note.

The blade itself

“We found that officers are more likely to be assaulted when carrying electroshock weaponry, and more likely to apply force,” said lead researcher Dr Barak Ariel from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.

“There was no increase in injury of suspects or complaints, suggesting it was not the police instigating hostilities. The presence of Tasers appears to provoke a pattern where suspects become more aggressive toward officers, who in turn respond more forcefully,” he said.

The team says these results likely stem from the ‘weapons effect‘: a psychological phenomenon in which sight of a weapon increases aggressive behavior. This aggression, however, didn’t come from the policemen themselves.

The team worked with the City of London police force, whose members are responsible for policing the Square Mile business district (in the center of London). The force also holds national responsibility for Economic Crime and prioritizes counter-terrorism, violent crime, and public order due to its central location. This force was the first in England and Wales to test “extended” use of Tasers in frontline officers — and Dr. Ariel and her team used the chance to carry out their experiment.

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Dr Ariel’s team (randomly) allocated a Taser-armed officer to 400 frontline shifts and compared their results to 400 unarmed shifts carried out over the same period. A total of 5,981 incidents occurred during the study.

Overall, squads carrying Tasers saw a 48% higher use of force than unarmed ones. The team also reports seeing a “contagion effect,” whereby unarmed officers accompanying Taser carriers used force 19% more often than those on Taser-free (control) shifts. Taser-carrying shifts recorded six physical assaults against police, compared to just three on the unarmed shifts. It may seem small, but the team argues that it is a worrying trend (it is, after all, a doubling in the number of assaults).

Another surprising finding was that the actual use of electroshock weapons was minimal over the study period, despite the increased hostility. Just nine “deholsterings” were recorded during the study, only two of which resulted in electric shocks applied to a suspect.

“For many, a weapon is a deterrence. However, some individuals interpret the sight of a weapon as an aggressive cue — a threat that creates a hostile environment,” Dr Ariel said. “The response is consequently a ‘fight or flight’ dilemma that can result in a behavioural manifestation of aggression and assault. This is what we think we are seeing in our Taser experiment.”

“It would not be surprising to find that serious or violent offenders fit this criteria, especially young males — the very type of suspect that is regularly in direct contact with frontline police.”

The team also offers a simple solution to bypass this effect on the ground: conceal the weapons. Such a decision would take very little money to implement while reducing the weapons effect seen in the study — without leaving officers weaponless.

“This conclusion could be generalised to all types of police armoury, including the lethal firearms carried by police officers. If the presence of weapons can lead to aggression by suspects, so its concealment should be able to reduce aggression and increase officer safety.”

David Lawes, Chief Superintendent of the City of London Police and study co-author said that the organization is testing whether new holsters or a change in the weapons’ position would help limit the weapon effect. The City of London Police is also instructing its officers on the findings of the previous study.

The paper “The ‘Less-Than-Lethal Weapons Effect’ — Introducing TASERs to Routine Police Operations in England and Wales: A Randomized Controlled Trial” has been published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.