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Examining the effects of the TASER on cognitive functioning: findings from a pilot study with police recruits

Abstract

Objectives

Despite its widespread adoption by more than two-thirds of police departments in the US, there has not been a single study examining the effects of the TASER on cognitive functioning. This inquiry is important for two reasons. First, research has consistently documented cognitive deficits following exposure to electricity (the TASER is an electrical device). Second, questions have emerged regarding whether TASER exposure impairs suspects’ ability to understand and waive their Miranda rights.

Methods

To explore this issue, the authors carried out a pilot study with 21 police recruits who received a TASER exposure as part of their training at the San Bernardino County (CA) Training Center. Each recruit was given a battery of cognitive tests 3–4 h before TASER exposure, within 5 min after exposure, and again 24 h after exposure.

Results

Recruits experienced statistically significant reductions in several measures of cognitive functioning following TASER exposure. However, all recruits had returned to their baseline levels of functioning within 24 h. Learning effects were documented in several of the cognitive tests.

Conclusions

The questions driving this study involve serious issues including constitutionally protected rights of the accused, use of force by police, and previously unexamined effects of the TASER on the human body. The pilot study represents a critical first step in exploring the effects of the TASER on cognitive functioning. Moreover, the results provided the authors with important information that will guide their larger study, a randomized controlled trial where healthy human volunteers will be randomly assigned to four groups, two of which receive a TASER exposure.

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Notes

  1. CEDs are sometimes called CEWs, conducted electrical weapons, or ECDs, electronic control devices. TASER International also estimates that there have been approximately 1.35 million voluntary or training exposures with their device(s). TASER International has also sold more than 260,000 devices to private consumers. Though the TASER is only one brand of CED, it is the most commonly used device in the United States. Moreover, the recruits whose experiences are described in this paper were exposed to a TASER X26 model. As a result, the terms “TASER” and “CED” are used interchangeably throughout this paper.

  2. See White and Ready (2010) for a more detailed review of these areas of concern.

  3. Research in this area considers electrical injuries and injuries from lightning strikes together, but we focus our attention on electrical injury (EI) victims only. Though the symptoms and effects appear similar, lightning strike injuries are less relevant as background for the current study on the TASER.

  4. Duff and McCaffrey (2001) suggested that variance in EI-related injuries may be explained by individual-level differences in physical health, psychosocial adjustment, gender, education, and pre-morbid characteristics (see also Cherington 1995; Daniel et al. 1985).

  5. The eight domains were overall neuropsychological functioning, intelligence, attention/concentration, speech/language, sensory/motor, visual motor, memory, and executive functioning. They also examined potential links between EI and personality/mental disorders (i.e., psychopathology and neurosis) and found that 70 % of studies indicated a connection, most commonly for depression.

  6. The authors could only staff two testing rooms for the study (e.g., only two recruits could be tested at the same time). Moreover, the pilot study was incorporated into the two-day training curriculum involving the TASER, which limited the authors’ ability to accommodate additional recruit volunteers (e.g., recruits had other responsibilities).

  7. The selection of tests was also influenced by prior research on electrical injuries, as well as practical constraints (e.g., a comprehensive battery of tests that could be administered within a 20-min period of time). The project Advisory Board includes two clinical neuropsychologists (one with expertise in electrical injuries), a cognitive psychologist, two physicians, an attorney, and a Lieutenant with a police department in the state of Arizona. One of the neuropsychologists provided a half-day training session to the research team on the administration and scoring of the tests. The team also carried out a half-day practice session with college students. The cognitive psychologist was present for both testing sessions in San Bernardino. All cognitive testing sessions were video recorded and audited for accuracy and consistency by the cognitive psychologist.

  8. For validation and reliability of the HVLT, see: Brandt (1991), Brandt and Benedict (2001), Delis et al. (1987), Rasmusson et al. (1995), and Shapiro et al. (1999).

  9. For validation and reliability of the Digit Span test, see: Elwood and Griffin (1972), Gray (2003), Moldawsky and Moldawsky (1952), Werheid et al. (2002), and Weschler (1945).

  10. For validation and reliability of the Digit Symbol test, see: Elwood and Griffin (1972), Kreiner and Ryan (2001), and Ryan et al. (2000).

  11. For validation and reliability of the Trail Making test Parts A and B, see: Fals-Stewart (1992), Spreen and Strauss (1998), and Tombaugh (2004).

  12. For validation and reliability of the Halstead Finger Tapping test, see: Goldstein and Sanders (2003), Johnson and Prigatano (2000), and Prigatano and Wong (1997).

  13. The authors did not ask the training academy staff to change the nature of the TASER exposure. The exposure in the back from seven feet is standard for the training setting. Exposures in the field are much more varied in terms of location and distance.

  14. One recruit was unavailable for post-test 2 because of logistical constraints associated with the training schedule.

  15. Recall that one of the recruits did not complete the post 2 testing. As a result, the findings in Table 2 are based on analyses with 20 cases instead of 21. This explains why the pre-test scores in the “size of difference” column are different in Tables 1 and 2.

  16. All of our cognitive tests were administered by two different teams of researchers. We have tested for statistically significant differences in the cognitive measures between the two research teams. There were too many significance tests involved in these analyses to present in a table format: 105 significance tests comparing the two different research teams at each data point (i.e., pre-test, post-test 1, and post-test 2). Only two (2) of the 105 tests showed significant differences between the two research teams. The teams showed significant differences on Trial 2 of Hopkins and on the cumulative Hopkins Trials 1–3.

  17. The NIJ-funded project has been reviewed and received approval from the Western Institutional Review Board (WIRB Pr. No.: 20120385; WIRB Study No.: 1131198). The authors received IRB approval on April 4, 2012. As part of the IRB protocol, the authors were prepared to return to San Bernardino for additional testing in the weeks following the pilot study, if deficits had persisted beyond the 24-h mark.

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Acknowledgments

This project is funded by the National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice – project # 2011-IJ-CX-0102. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. The authors wish to thank Dr. Carl Yamashiro, Sharon Goldsworthy, and Dr. Evan Risko for their important contributions to the project. We also thank Sheriff Rod Hoops and the training instructors at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Training Center, as well as the 21 recruits who participated in this study.

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Correspondence to Michael D. White.

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White, M.D., Ready, J.T., Kane, R.J. et al. Examining the effects of the TASER on cognitive functioning: findings from a pilot study with police recruits. J Exp Criminol 10, 267–290 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-013-9197-9

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Keywords

  • TASER
  • CED
  • Electrical injury
  • Miranda waiver
  • Police use of force