Tasers drive jump in State Police’s use of force
The use of force by Massachusetts State Police officers nearly doubled in 2016, department statistics show, driven by troopers’ widespread use of Tasers for the first time last year — including many incidents in which the electronic weapons were never actually fired.
The annual data, compiled by a State Police committee that reviews every reported use of force by a trooper, show a total of 402 incidents in 2016 — a 93 percent increase over the 2015 total of 208. The review covered nine categories including use of Tasers and pepper spray, and police dog bites.
Some of the increase appeared to be accounted for by the way the use of the new electronic weapons was logged. More than 100 of the incidents in 2016 were warnings associated with Taser use, not actual strikes.
A State Police spokesman said the remainder of the increase, which still represents about a 50 percent jump compared with 2015, could not be accounted for by changes in policy or directives. The department’s guidelines for using force against citizens have not changed in recent years, he said.
Rather, spokesman Dave Procopio said in an e-mail, the increase could be the result of changing staffing levels and random fluctuation. Though the 2016 total was significantly higher than 2015, it was more in line with 2014’s total, 356.
The use of several types of force rose over 2015 levels, including by police dogs, up from 12, and 44 injuries suffered by suspects during incidents in which State Police officers used force, up from 33.
Injuries to officers were halved, from eight in 2015 to four in 2016, according to the data, which includes only information from incidents in which force was used. For example, the March death of Trooper Thomas Clardy, who was killed when he was struck by a car, is not included because Clardy was performing a traffic stop, not using force.
The reports were obtained through a public records request and posted to the website muckrock.com by the journalist Andrew Quemere.
A redacted section lists an unknown number of incidents that resulted in further investigation, or counseling or training for officers.
The largest statistical increase was in the officers’ use of Tasers. The devices were carried only by select special units before 2016, and not deployed at all in 2015; the State Police began distributing the weapons more widely in April. In Massachusetts, 230 agencies have been approved to use Tasers, according to an October 2016 legislative report.
Procopio said the State Police have been pleased with the first several months of the Taser program, and attributed a decrease in pepper spray incidents to their wider adoption.
“They are increasing safety for troopers and suspects alike, because they allow a trooper another very effective less lethal tool to subdue a hostile and dangerous suspect,” before more lethal force is required, Procopio said.
Law enforcement’s use of Tasers has proved controversial with civil rights groups. Though considered less-than-lethal, their use has led to fatalities, including the 2014 death of a man tased by Chelsea police. And instead of replacing the use of lethal force — typically firearms — critics fear they instead substitute for nonviolent deescalation tactics.
“Excessive use of force, including overreliance on Tasers, explains the growing distrust and tension between law enforcement and the public,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
Taser deployments account for more than a quarter of the 2016 force reports, though that number appears to overstate their use. While 130 of the 402 uses of force were attributed to Tasers, Procopio said the weapons were used by troopers in 49 total incidents around the state. In many of those instances, the weapon was never fired.
All or nearly all those incidents involved aiming the Taser’s laser targeting system at a suspect; 25 people were actually tased.
In the statistics, however, each action with the Taser is counted as a separate use of force. Verbal warnings, laser targeting, and warnings that involve sparking the weapon were each counted as individual uses of force.
The result is that a single incident can count as four separate uses of force; without Taser incidents that don’t involve actual tasing, the total for 2016 was about 300 — still substantially higher than 2015, but lower than 2014.
The same standard does not apply to firearms, which are counted in the statistics only if someone is shot. The report lists just a single firearm incident in 2016, the same as 2015.
“Some departments count that and some do not,” said David O’Laughlin, director of training and use of force consultant for the nonprofit Municipal Police Institute in South Grafton. “I don’t know of many who would count verbal commands and verbal control tactics as an actual use of force.”
Though the Taser data is new, O’Laughlin said making inferences in year-to-year increases in other forms of force is difficult. Whether and when force is used depends on the situation, and those situations do not present themselves at regular intervals. Comparing calendar years, while convenient, is essentially arbitrary, he said.
John Tiplady, a former Danvers police lieutenant who wrote that department’s use of force guidelines, said it is common for tallies of force to fluctuate from year to year.
Geographically, Troop B, which covers Western Massachusetts, had the largest number of use-of-force incidents in 2016 — 112, more than double its 2015 total and more than 30 percent higher than the next highest troops. The troop logged 39 Taser uses, including six in which suspects were struck.
In many Western Massachusetts communities, the State Police serve as the primary backup to small town departments, or even contract to perform patrols in areas with no local police, Tiplady said.
The data show increases in most, but not all, categories statewide:
■ The number of animals euthanized rose from 50 in 2015 to 67.
■ Control techniques, in which officers hold or restrain suspects physically, rose from 52 to 84; striking, such as with a hand or baton, rose from 15 to 22.
■ Uses of OC spray, commonly called pepper spray, declined from 37 to 25.