The national conversation surrounding use of force by cops has largely been about guns. There was Michael Brown in Ferguson and there was Laquan McDonald in Chicago and there was Brandon Tate Brown here in Philadelphia.

But last year, about 50 people nationwide died as a result of an incident when police used a Taser. Two people were killed by officers with the Philadelphia Police Department last year, both of whom were killed with a firearm — but it has happened here before. In 2010, an 18-year-old man with mental illness died after police Tasered him. And last year, a Kensington man died after being Tasered by SEPTA police 10 times.

Those deaths raise questions about excessive and improper use of the stun guns, whether police should use them against people with mental illness or deploy them too many times against the same person.

Data shows that though more Philadelphia Police Department officers are trained every year to use Tasers, the department decreased its use of the stun guns by more than 60 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Doling out the Tasers

Since 2008, just 2,201 of the more than 6,000 Philadelphia Police officers have been trained to use Tasers and, between 2010 and 2015, there were 2,660 Taser deployments, according to data provided by the department.

Here’s how Tasers have been issued to officers since 2008:

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The department says only officers who volunteered over the last eight years have been trained to use the Tasers, but that could change in order to get the weapons in the hands of more officers. 

Philly Police have been criticized for the Crisis Intervention Training program that allots cops Tasers, as officers getting the training were calling it “Taser training,” rather than thinking of it as something that would teach them de-escalation tactics. Police without the training — which is annual for police who carry Tasers — have one less option to use against an aggressive offender that’s not a gun.

Police officials call these stun guns Electronic Control Weapons, or ECW’s, and officers are authorized by a police directive to use them “when the offender is physically aggressive or assaultive and there is an immediate likelihood that they may injure themselves or others.”

Such behaviors by offenders are considered to be punching, kicking, grabbing, or approaching an officer with a clenched fist. The directive offers an exception: Police are not authorized to use a Taser against protestors and demonstrators who are passively not complying with orders by police.

Here’s the chart officers are told to consider in terms of the appropriate use of force against an offender:

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Credit: Philadelphia Police directive

A decrease in usage

A Taser is a device that uses an air cartridge to send out two electrified probes into a person’s body. Those probes, which continue to be attached to the device, send electrical pulses into the person and disrupt normal electric signals in the body, making it difficult for a person to control his or her body.

Those officers who carry Tasers have specific direction about how and when they should pull the trigger on one. When activating a Taser, an officer is told to use it for one “standard cycle,” which is five seconds long. Exposure to a Taser for more than 15 seconds is said to increase the risk of injury or death, so Philly officers are only authorized to administer a maximum of three cycles against a person.

Philadelphia Police don’t keep statistics about how many times a Taser is fired against a single person, so there’s no way to know if cops are frequently failing in their first attempt to subdue someone, as was found in Los Angeles. However, they do keep track of the number of incidents in which a Taser is used:

Since 2010, those numbers have gone down by more than 60 percent, with the largest decrease happening between 2014 and 2015:

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These figures follow a trend in Philadelphia of a decrease in officer-involved shootings and a citywide downtrend in violent crime. Police-involved shooting incidents decreased by 20 percent between 2014 and 2015 and went from 62 incidents to 23 incidents between 2007 and 2015. And though the number of homicides has slowly creeped up since 2013, violent crime incidents decreased by more than 15 percent since 2007.

The department wouldn’t say whether or not the decrease in Taser usage was purposeful. Spokeswoman Christine O’Brien said only that the decision to use a Taser “is based on individual incidents and circumstances; there are no quotas.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.