When an Austin Police Officer Can and Can't Use a Taser

Feb 10, 2017

A Facebook video of an arrest in Hyde Park this week has some Austinites criticizing the Austin Police Department’s use of Taser devices.

The arrest occurred at a bus stop in front of Julio’s on Duval Street, where a suspect was tased after an encounter with a police officer. So far, the video has racked up nearly 50,000 views and has prompted a discussion on the department’s use of the devices, within and outside the department.

Here's a breakdown of APD's policies on when Tasers can – and can't – be used.

When an officer can’t use a Taser

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Officers can’t use a Taser to torture, torment, punish or interrogate someone. They can’t use it for “practical jokes.” They can’t use it against someone who’s passively resisting an arrest or someone covered in, say, gasoline.

When an officer can use a Taser

Austin police officers can tase a suspect if they’re fleeing arrest or detainment, if they’re actively resisting, if they’ve expressed violent intent (physically or verbally) toward themselves, another officer or a civilian.

A Taser can also be used if an officer thinks that approaching a suspect could be potentially dangerous.

The department’s policy manual advises officers not to use Tasers against pregnant women, the elderly, “obvious juveniles,” restrained or handcuffed suspects or people who may be in a position to harm others or themselves – for instance, someone driving a car or someone perched on a balcony.

The manual also advises against tasing someone who’s under the influence, nude or is exhibiting irrational behavior, though officers are permitted to use a Taser if there’s an overriding public safety concern that outweighs that risk.

Multiple officers can’t use a Taser at the same time on a single suspect, unless a deployment is deemed ineffective.

Proper deployment

Officers must give suspects warning before using a Taser, which should be “Taser, Taser, Taser,” according to the APD Policy Manual. The officer then must allow enough time for a suspect to comply with the warning before using the weapon to subdue a suspect. Ideally, the officer would have another officer present for backup, as the Taser might fail.

Officers are encouraged to target the gut area of a suspect and are encouraged to avoid targeting specific areas like the groin, chest and head.

After a Taser is used

If officers used a Taser cartridge, they must remove the darts from suspects before they’re taken into custody.

Those prongs are placed in evidence bags similar to the ones used to collect hypodermic needles. Affected areas should be photographed, and the confetti that shoots out of Tasers – which is supposed to help prevent illicit use – is collected, along with the spent cartridge. The device's memory, which counts the number of times a trigger is pulled and the duration of each use, is also downloaded. Those are collected and stored as evidence for at least a three-year period.

A jail physician prior to booking will examine any suspect hit with Taser darts. But if a suspect is displaying signs of erratic behavior or possible substance use, appears to be in need of or requests medical attention, is pregnant or has a dart lodged in a “sensitive area,” officers are required to monitor the suspect until EMTs can arrive.

Officers must file a report, detailing the reasoning and circumstances for the use of the device.

After that, the use of force is categorized as a level one, two or three use of force by APD. 

  • level one results in the death of a suspect
  • level two Taser use results in the incapacitation of a suspect
  • level three Taser use results in what police call "pain compliance," meaning a suspect was subdued but not completely incapacitated

The tiers of use of force are used internally by APD in the review process, which seeks to determine if a use of force was objectively reasonable. Any use of a Taser is also reviewed by the department's Taser Review Committee, which was established in 2014. If a complaint comes from outside the department, reviews are conducted by the Office of the Police Monitor, which then gives disciplinary suggestions to the police chief. The department then uses its "discipline matrix" to determine how to proceed. 

APD Assistant Chief of Police Ely Reyes said the department's looking into the Hyde Park case. 

“The Facebook video itself elicits a lot of communication from the community and the police department," he told KUT. "And our responsibility is – even without an actual formal complaint – when we see something that causes alarm in the community, then it’s our responsibility to look into it.”