Electronic Restraint Devices

ERDs are usually handheld, conducted energy devices designed to administer a disruptive electrical shock to suspects and/or prisoners and are aimed at incapacitating, restricting, immobilizing, and controlling behaviors by an individual who may refuse to respond favorably to instructions from law enforcement personnel or who may make attempts to evade custody or become a serious threat to themselves, to law enforcement personnel, or to society. Typically included in this continuum of electronic restraints devices are stun cuffs, riot shields, stun guns, tasers, and stun belts. These electrical restraint devices are usually functional and highly efficient as they utilize high electrical voltages and high frequencies to deliver electrical shocks via electrodes placed on the individual’s body and that stimulate and immobilize the musculoskeletal system of the individuals who are actively resisting arrest or are acting in an aggressive manner toward law enforcement personnel.

Globally, police officers possess a monopoly on the use of state-sanctioned use of force; however, this force must be reasonable. Added to this, as policing and policing technology are continuously evolving, so too are methods used to capture suspects and restrain prisoners. With this in mind, ERDs are additional tools to the ever-evolving technological ecosystem of contemporary law enforcement. Apart from the increasing availability of ERDs; the Police Executive Research Forum and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) pointed out in 2001 that there is a concomitant increase in their usage across the globe, especially by the police departments in the United States.

ERDs are relevant to surveillance, security, and privacy for differing reasons. For example, when an ERD is utilized as a policing tool, it may negatively impinge on citizens’ rights to freedom of movement. Furthermore, the history of policing in the United Kingdom, the United States, Europe, and other metropolitan countries points to its indiscriminate usage against people of African descent, minority people, mentally challenged persons, and persons whose ethnicity may be different from the established status quo. This suggests that for those persons who are unfairly targeted by the use of ERDs, there is an air of extreme vulnerability to attacks on their right to personal privacy.

History of Electronic Restraint Devices

The history of what is now known as ERDs is somewhat checkered. This is premised on the notion that such devices were originally known as conducted energy devices. However, in 2005, the COPS Office and Police Executive Research Forum came together to produce a set of policy guidelines regarding the use of what was then called conducted energy devices, and a decision was made to change the name of the device from conducted energy devices to electronic control weapons. Further modifications to the device were made possible through the exponential advances in technology, and the device was subsequently referred to as electronic control devices and, more frequently, ERDs.

Uses and Challenges

A report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the COPS Office Use of Force Symposium (2012) submits, “Law enforcement faces innumerable challenges created by the current environment, particularly with regards to use of force” (p. 11). Instructively, concepts surrounding the use of force have been significantly altered over the years, moving away from physicality to now include use of force based on the increased usage of technology- and science-based devices. It is against this background that ERDs have come to the forefront of policing. This is predicated on the notion that the use of an ERD may be seen on the continuum of use of force (reasonable or unreasonable); however, these devices are less-than-lethal (nondeadly) force, and when used appropriately, they can offer a nonlethal alternative to the use of firearms. There are many effects of the ERDs on individuals, and these may vary from individual to individual. Some aftereffects following an encounter with ERDs include, but are not limited to, the following: falling to the ground, freezing in place (involuntary muscle contractions) during the discharge of current, screaming or remaining silent, and dazed feelings.

In spite of ERDs being viewed in a glowing light by some individuals, they have been subject to much scrutiny by practitioners such as electrical and biomechanical engineers as well as by academics and stakeholder groups. These entities have analyzed ERDs and have expressed concerns about the inappropriate use of tasers as well as leg restraints. Conversely, health, electrical, human rights, and even law enforcement personnel have recognized the benefits to be derived from the use of ERDs. They have cited that ERDs can save lives when used properly instead of using a firearm or physical acts such as chokeholds and handcuffing to subdue a suspect. In addition, as the electrodes for the ERD are concealed from public view (underneath the clothing of an accused), it is argued that from a human rights perspective, it reduces the prejudice against individuals on trial as jurors might be prejudiced if accused individuals appear at trial wearing visible wrist or leg restraints.

In spite of these arguments, the topic is often controversial, as opponents, some in the aforementioned disciplines, have criticized the reliance on ERDs on several grounds. For instance, it has been argued that ERDs are fast becoming a replacement for good police work but that these devices should not become a substitute for effective police work. Furthermore, it has been argued that the proliferation of ERDs has facilitated the diminishing of effective communication skills by police and prison officials who now lack the means to effectively communicate with suspects and prisoners and thus de-escalate terse encounters. ERDs also have the potential to cause secondary injury (i.e., sustained when a subject falls to the ground as the result of the deployment of ERDs); they have the potential for harm, misuse, and abuse; and the voltage applied to individuals can cause cardiac arrest and death in some people. The possibility of death after an ERD encounter was made visible in the case of Robert Dziekanski, a Canadian national who died in the secure arrivals area of Vancouver International Airport, Canada, on October 14, 2007, moments after he was shot with Royal Canadian Mounted Police stun guns.

Final Thoughts

ERDs are used in prisons and jails to restrain and control aggressive inmates, to minimize self-harm to inmates, and to prevent assaults on prison personnel. ERDs are also utilized in the wider society to apprehend and subdue violent, aggressive, and noncooperative suspects and to prevent assaults on law enforcement personnel. While ERDs are a less-than-lethal alternative to the use of firearms, for example, they are the source of a number of benefits and controversies, and the aforementioned dicta facilitate a greater understanding of their usage as well as their challenges.

Wendell Codrington Wallace

See also Electronic Surveillance ; Wrist and Ankle Monitoring Devices

Further Readings

Amnesty International.Excessive and Lethal Force? Amnesty International Report on Taser Abuse. London, England: Author, 2005.

Bozeman, W. P., et al. “Safety and Injury Profile of Conducted Electrical Weapons Used by Law Enforcement Officer Against Criminal Suspects.” Annals of Emerging Medicine, v.53/4 (2009). doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2008.11.021

International Association of Chiefs of Police/Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. Emerging Use of Force Issues: Balancing Public and Officer Safety: Report From the International Association of Chiefs of Police/COPS Office Use of Force Symposium (May 4, 2011). http://www.theiacp.org/portals/0/pdfs/emerginguseofforceissues041612.pdf (Accessed October 2017).

Jauchem, James R. “Deaths in Custody: Are Some Due to Electronic Control Devices (Including TASER Devices) or Excited Delirium?” Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, v.17/1 (2010). doi:10.1016/j .jflm.2008.05.011

Kroll, Mark W., et al. “Electronic Control Devices and the Clinical Milieu.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, v.49/6 (2007).

Kroll, Mark W., et al. “Ventricular Fibrillation Risk Estimation for Conducted Electrical Weapons: Critical Convolutions.” Proceedings of the 33rd Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, Boston, MA, August 30–September 3, 2011.

Smith, Michael R., et al. “The Impact of Conducted Energy Devices and Other Types of Force and Resistance on Officer and Suspect Injuries.” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, v.30/3 (2007).

U.S. Department of Justice, Police Executive Research Forum and Community Oriented Policing Services. Electronic Control Weapon Guidelines. Washington, DC: Author, 2011.

White, M. D. and Justin Ready. “The Taser as a Less Lethal Force Alternative: Findings on Use and Effectiveness in a Large Metropolitan Police Agency.” Police Quarterly, v.10 (2007).

Williams, Howard E.Taser Electronic Control Devices and Sudden In-Custody Death: Separating Evidence From Conjecture. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas, 2008.

Yu-Sheng Lin and Tonisha R. Jones. “Electronic Control Devices and Use of Force Outcomes: Incidence and Severity of Use of Force, and Frequency of Injuries to Arrestees and Police Officers.” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, v.33/1 (2010).

Zigmund, Edmund. “Electronic Control Devices: Liability and Training Aspects.” AELE Monthly Law Journal, v.5 (2007).