Science

The weapons effect: How equipping police with Tasers might be fueling hostilities

The weapons effect: How equipp...
Is arming police officers with Tasers encouraging more hostile behavior from offenders?
Is arming police officers with Tasers encouraging more hostile behavior from offenders?
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Is arming police officers with Tasers encouraging more hostile behavior from offenders?
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Is arming police officers with Tasers encouraging more hostile behavior from offenders?

In June 2016, the City of London police force began to equip some of its frontline officers with Tasers, or "conducted energy devices," as they are known in such circles. The move was the first of its kind in England and Wales, and criminologists from the University of Cambridge used the shift to carry out a major experiment on how the public respond to visibly armed officers. Their findings suggest that while they were barely used, the sight of Tasers seems to lead to more aggressive behavior from both sides, with the researchers calling for a rethink on how such items should be carried.

Led by Dr Barak Ariel from the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology, the study took place between June 2016 and June 2017, in which time a total of 5,981 incidents with police occurred. During the study, 400 frontline police shifts were allocated a Taser-carrying officer, which were then compared to an equal number of shifts without a visibly armed officer.

This enabled the researchers to tease out some interesting insights into public-police interactions in light of the new weaponry. The researchers found that police armed with Tasers used force 48 percent more often than those who were not, with the use of force defined to include the use of not just Tasers but also physical restraint, handcuffing and CS spray. They say that even unarmed officers accompanying those on shift with Tasers used force 19 percent more often, something they call a "contagion effect."

While the Tasers were deholstered nine times during the study, electric shocks were only applied to suspects twice. Meanwhile, three police offers from the unarmed control group were assaulted throughout the study, compared to six from the taser-carrying group. Though these figures are small, the authors contend that assaults against police officers are very rare and this doubling of the statistic is therefore significant.

"It is well established that the visual cue of a weapon can stimulate aggression," says Ariel. "While our research does not pierce the 'black box' of decision-making, the only difference between our two study conditions was the presence of a Taser device. 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."

The results of the study tie in with a decades-old concept known as the weapons effect, first demonstrated in laboratory experiments in 1967 using electric shocks in the presence of a rifle. The researchers believe that a similar phenomenon might be at play here, provoking more aggressive responses from suspects who catch a glimpse of the Tasers.

"For many, a weapon is a deterrence," says Ariel. "However, some individuals interpret the sight of a weapon as an aggressive cue – a threat that creates a hostile environment. The response is consequently a 'fight or flight' dilemma that can result in a behavioral manifestation of aggression and assault. This is what we think we are seeing in our Taser experiment."

The researchers point out that around half a million police officers in the US are armed with Tasers, and that as they start to enter use in the UK it might be worth thinking about how they are carried. They put forward what is a pretty simple solution to limiting this weapons effect: conceal them from view.

"Following the findings of the study, we are exploring whether a simple holster change or weapon position move will nullify the weapons effect issue shown in the experiment," says City of London Police Chief Superintendent David Lawes, who is also a study co-author. "We have also updated our training package for officers carrying Tasers to make them aware of the findings."

The team's research has been published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.

Source: University of Cambridge

15 comments
highlandboy
One has to question whether the issue is the visibility of arms, or a change in the expected leading to heightened reactions. In the USofA, Australia and several other locals, arms are traditionally worn. It would be interesting to see whether the addition of further armaments in those localities had the same effect. Much more study is required here before conclusions can be drawn with any degree of reliability.
willis97
If you give a cop more weapons ofcourse they will be more aggressive. They are violent and aggressive criminals. Give them body cams not tazers.
Brian M
Seems to fit in with what you might expect in animal behaviour, some will bow to the visual force of threat whereas the reaction of others would be to increase their own threat of violence to the perceived threat.
paul314
It seems plausible that, even with training, an officer with a (nonlethal) distance weapon would behave differently from an officer without one. And that the people around them would react to that difference. Checkhov's Taser.
Bob Stuart
I grew up unworried about armed Canadian Police, but then I called 911. Asperger's Syndrome gives me atypical eye contact, so I became the suspect, and still terrified.
Nobody
The statement "Though these figures are small..." is a red flag in this article. You need more data to draw any conclusions from such a study. Just one incident could totally skew any results. This looks more like a preconceived belief that quickly assumes insufficient data as proof. From what I have read, things are getting much more violent in the UK. I'm sure the officers will be carrying guns in the near future no matter what liberal apologists say.
Robert Walther
It would seem to be unnatural for any animal to attack a more dangerous animal just because that animal appears more dangerous. Evolutionary survival depends on the 'flight' aspect of 'fight or flight'.
Nik
Give a control bully a weapon, and he will want to use it, and will exhibit the aggressiveness that accompanies that attitude. That aggressive body language will be transmitted to the ''prey'' who will act according to their nature. I've spoken to several US citizens that have taken up residence in the UK, and their reason for being there was, ''because the police dont wear guns.'' It's only a small step from tasers to guns, in the minds of control freaks. So to me, tasers are just the thin end of the wedge towards that. Any hostility that tasers provoke, will be used as an excuse to introduce guns as the norm. The use of guns by British police has resulted in the disaster of innocent people being shot, injured or killed, which is deplorable, especially, when the police have ultimately, ''been deemed to have done nothing wrong!'' The British police used to be regarded as ''wonderful,'' but that reputation has slid significantly downhill, when in case after case, they were shown to have made serious errors, and had then lied repeatedly, and extensively, to cover their respective rears, even to the extent of getting innocent people convicted, and jailed. Tasers are just another step in the downhill direction.
icykel
I find the comment by NIK interesting and thoughtful. Traditionally New Zealand followed the UK Police example, wearing no weapons but in recent years officers have been issued with tazers, initially only to be used in extreme conditions but quite quickly they became an almost first choice action piece. Now the tazer has lost its novelty the call for police to carry guns is renewed. I agree, body-cams would be my prefered choice. That way you gather more reliable information to better understand the situation.
christopher
The guy with the weapon has nowhere near as much incentive to placate any situation. Give them cameras, not weapons - then everyone will be forced to behave better, instead of incentivised to behave more aggressively!