When police shot and killed a naked, unarmed black man near Atlanta in early March, many people questioned why police didn’t use a Taser instead.
The victim, Anthony Hill, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran who may have suffered from mental illness, started wandering around his apartment complex completely naked. The officer who responded to the situation told Hill to back up multiple times but then shot and killed him.
The officer had a Taser — so why didn’t he use it?
“He probably didn’t feel like he had time,” law enforcement consultant Chuck Drago told Business Insider.
An officer’s intuition influences these split-second decisions even more than any standard protocol, according to Drago, a former police chief in Florida with over 30 years of experience in law enforcement and government.
“What it comes down to is what the officer feels at the time,” said Drago, who acts as an expert witness about police tactics and advises police departments. “If the officer is in fear for his life, he can use deadly force to thwart the threat.”
In short, officers can forgo Tasers and fire their gun if they can show they feared for their lives.
Police do, however, learn some guidelines for when to shoot a suspect. For instance, research has shown that a suspect who comes within 21 feet of an officer can inflict harm before the cop has time to react (though some contest the validity of the “21-foot rule” in certain circumstances).
Police also learn to put some distance between themselves and the suspect, but they do risk tripping if they try to back up, Drago noted.
Contrary to what’s portrayed in TV and movies, police aren’t trained to shoot to disarm. They shoot to stop the threat.
“They are taught to shoot at center mass (the upper torso) because that is the easiest target to hit,” Drago said.
An officer typically wouldn’t have the time or skill to shoot at the arms or limbs of a “fast approaching threat,” he added. Police also commonly shoot several times since one or two shots may not stop a suspect.
As for Tasers, police aren’t required to carry them, and they’re not always effective. Tasers can only function properly within a 21-foot range, according to Taser International, one of the main suppliers of police stun-guns.
Even then, Tasers can cause physical complications that kill people, especially when the suspect is experiencing “excited delirium,” a condition of elevated heart rate and fever induced by mental illness, drugs, alcohol, or all three, according to Drago.
“Not that they shouldn’t use it [the Taser],” Drago added, “because if you’re going to shoot and kill them, how much worse can you make it?”
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