Technological Innovation and Police Officers' Understanding and Use of Force

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Technological Innovation and Police Officers’
Understanding and Use of Force
Michael Sierra-Are
Today, the TASER is a ubiquitous less-than-lethal force technology lauded
for its ability to curb police officers’ use of excessive and lethal force.
Although less injurious than other weapons, concerns exist that the TASER
can still be misused by police officers. This article uses ethnographic observa-
tions and unstructured interviews across three urban police departments to
describe how the TASER affects officers’ understanding and use of force in
beneficial and unintended ways. I find that officers understand and use the
TASER as a device that can enhance safety for themselves and suspects,
including in cases where the TASER is used in lieu of lethal force that offi-
cers believe would have been justified. Despite these benefits, understanding
of the TASER as a safety-enhancing technology also influences the use of
excessive force via TASER by young, inexperienced officers, ultimately con-
tributing to the very problem TASERs were intended to ameliorate.
From data-driven enforcement strategies like hotspots policing
(Manning 2011) to new “big data” surveillance practices (Brayne
2017), U.S. policing experienced unprecedented technological
advancement over the past three decades. The use of force—a
defining feature of the police occupation (Bittner 1970)—is no
exception to the inexorable current of technological change; mod-
ern police officers have access to a greater range of coercive tools
than ever, especially with regard to less-than-lethal weapons
(Alpert et al. 2011). Chief among these advancements is the con-
ducted energy device (CED) or “TASER,” a weapon that incapaci-
tates subjects with 50,000 V that cause involuntary muscle
contractions (NIJ 2008). Today, TASERs are used by more than
17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies (Axon 2015) and are
The author wishes to thank Matthew Clair, Andrew Papachristos, Colleen Berryessa, For-
rest Stuart, Amada Armenta, Sarah Brayne, Ed Maguire, the editors of Law and Society
Review, and anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments and suggestions on this
Please direct all correspondence to Michael Sierra-Are
´valo, Rutgers School of Crimi-
nal Justice, 123 Washington Street, Newark, NJ 07103094; e-mail: michael.
John D. and Catherine T.MacArthur Foundation
Law & Society Review, Volume 53, Number 2 (2019): 420–451
©2018 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
lauded as safe, effective alternatives to the lethal force that is at
the heart of longstanding judicial and public concerns over exces-
sive force (Obasogie and Newman 2018; PERF 2011).
As with any technological innovation, however, TASERs also
come with the risk of unintended and even counterproductive
consequences. Despite their less-than-lethal benefits, concerns
exist that TASERs are used in ways that nonetheless constitute
excessive force that injures members of the public and damages
the legitimacy of police (Amnesty International 2004; Kleinig
2007). Unfortunately, evidence of the role of TASER technology
in the use of excessive force is sparse and the research literature
on excessive force has not kept pace with the advent of the
TASER that is commonly discussed as a safer alternative
to more injurious force options, such as batons or firearms
(Adams and Jennison 2007). Furthermore, neither the existing
literature on excessive force nor TASER use considers how
patrol officers’ understandings of force with regard to the
TASER contribute to the systemic issue of excessive force
(Kappeler et al. 1998).
In light of the current emphasis on police violence and its
detrimental effect on police legitimacy, public safety, and com-
munity health (Carr et al. 2007; Gau and Brunson 2010;
President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing 2015), there is
pressing need for empirical accounts of how officers make
sense of this new technology and incorporate it into their
understanding and use of force that—even if less injurious
than other force options—can still constitute excessive force.
Drawing on observational and unstructured interview data
from three urban police departments in the United States, I
describe how officers’ understanding of the TASER as a less-
than-lethal force option has both beneficial and unintended
consequences for their use of coercive force. First, TASERs are
understood and used by officers as a force option that can
enhance safety for them and the public, including during
“hidden” TASER use whereby officers threaten electrocution
to ensure suspect compliance without leaving any physical evi-
dence of the TASER’s use. Second, officers understand and
use the TASER as a force option that allows them to refrain
from using their firearm in situations they believe would have
In lieu of the term “perceptions” common to policing scholarship, legal doctrine,
and psychological research emphasizing biologically rooted cognition, I use “understand-
ing” to capture the end product of a broader process of “meaning-making”—the lived
interpretation of situations and patterned action in ways that make them intelligible or
“account-able” to individuals and others (Garfinkel 1967: 1; Spillman 2001). In short,
“understanding” is intended to capture how officers see, experience, and make sense of
TASERs and their use in their role as legal agents empowered to deploy coercive force.
´valo 421
justified lethal force, particularly when confronting suspects
suffering from mental illness. Despite these apparent benefits
of the TASER, officers also link understanding of the TASER
as a safety-enhancing force option to the use of less-than-lethal
but still excessive force by young, inexperienced officers
already prone to unnecessarily escalate interactions with the
public. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of
these findings for the technological control of excessive force,
as well as for broader sociolegal considerations of the unin-
tended consequences of technological innovation in policing.
The Use of Excessive Force
The authority to use force is a central feature of the police
role that allows police to enforce the edicts of the state, ensure
the safety of the public, and to defend themselves and other
officers from harm (Bittner 1970; Harmon 2008). However,
just as state-sanctioned force can be used appropriately and
within the bounds of the law, so too can it be abused
(Kappeler et al. 1998; Westley 1970). The misuse of force, in
addition to physically harming the public, violates public
expectations of fair impartial legal agents and reduces the
legitimacy of police (Carr et al. 2007; Gau and Brunson 2010;
Kochel 2012). The loss of police legitimacy—the belief that
police have the right to demand citizen compliance and that
the public should defer to police authority (Tyler 2004)—
hinders the cooperation and willing deference of the public
that police depend on to address crime and disorder (Tyler
and Fagan 2008). When cooperation is not forthcoming, police
interactions with the public are more likely to escalate into
competitions for status and respect, in turn increasing the like-
lihood that interactions devolve into violence that can injure
police and the public alike (Sunshine and Tyler 2003: 520).
When the force used by police is perceived as excessive, the
public’s perceptions of illegitimate police are confirmed, con-
tributing to a climate of mutual resentment, distrust, and fear
(Brunson 2007; Werthman and Piliavin 1967).
Given the dire consequences of excessive force, understanding
and mitigating excessive force is of paramount concern to those
interested in protecting the public’s well-being and fostering
cooperation between police and the community (Adams 1999;
Harris 2009). Although the significance of excessive force is clear,
the definition and empirical study of what constitutes “excessive”
force is less so. Indeed, decades of scholarship use a litany of
422 Technological Innovation and Police Use of Force

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