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Cruel and Unusual? Or Efficient Force?
Vandal sociology student delves into TASER controversy
By Lisa Laughlin
Sociology major Elise Pineda, a senior from Othello, Washington, has spent the last year and half exploring the highly controversial use of TASERS in today’s law enforcement fields. Along with her mentor Dr. Brian Woolf, Pineda has conducted many in-depth interviews with training officers of different precincts in the State of Washington, and gained valuable insight.
“The main debate on the TASER is whether or not they are safe,” said Pineda. “Many groups don’t like them. However, every officer that I have talked to really liked this technology. They say it is safer than any other technology.”
Pineda explained that while various testing at TASER International deems the technology safe, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union deem TASERS as cruel and unusual punishment; thus leading to the controversial coverage in the media today.
“Often the accounts reported publicly in the news are the bad instances,” said Pineda. “There are many instances that TASERS are used appropriately, but these accounts aren’t publicly reported as often.”
The result is a skewed perspective among many individuals in society who form opinions based on partial facts.
“Officers do think that it [bad media coverage] influences public opinion because they are seeing all of these deaths that allegedly are caused because of TASERS, and they are not seeing the benefits of TASERS,” said Pineda. “People have died after being shot with a TASER, and while the deaths have all been noted that the cause is not the TASER but rather other things such as health or drugs, many people are not convinced.”
Along with polling police officers, Pineda’s research has focused on discovering how to reduce controversy in police agencies and communities.
“Based on my research, open and honest agencies seem to have better results,” she said. “The agencies that spend time educating their communities on what they do and why they do it have better relationships with the community members.”
For example, many agencies provide community police academies, where community members can learn about the training officers have, and learn about the use-of-force continuum that officers refer to.
“This continuum basically gives scenarios and which use of force or technology can be used for said scenario,” she said.
Pineda has shared her findings with her fellow McNair* scholars in class, and presented the research at the Pacific Sociological Conference. Her peers were intrigued, and at the conference the topic sparked debate.
“Half of the people at the table found my research very interesting and were in agreement based on their experiences with either being in law enforcement or having a relative in law enforcement. The other half seemed to find TASERS dangerous and did not believe that officers used them appropriately.”
Despite mixed feelings about the technology within society, Pineda’s research has given her a firm opinion on the matter.
“I personally think they [TASERS] are more useful and safer than OC Spray (pepper spray) and batons. Officers have said that many times they just need to threaten the individual with a TASER and they will comply, so they are less likely to actually use the technology,” she said. “I think that as long as officers are being held accountable, as with the use-of-force reports and the recording component that TASERS offer which records the duration that the TASE is used, it is an excellent technology.”
Pineda’s research has given her confidence to pursue a doctorate degree in Sociology, as she hopes to continue conducting research in graduate school and focusing on criminology.
*Pineda is part of the University of Idaho McNair Achievement Program, which supports high-achieving first-generation, low-income and underrepresented college students.