NIST Seeks Standardization for Electroshock Weapons

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are attempting to develop a standardized method for assessing the electrical output of stun guns and other electroshock weapons that can form the basis of a future industry-wide standardized testing regimen.

NIST researchers at the Office of Law Enforcement Standards have developed methods for calibrating the high-voltage and current measurement probes used by the industry, as part of the NIST characterization program for conducted energy devices.

Conducted energy devices, such as stun guns, are designed to deliver a brief, high-voltage, low-amplitude electrical pulse to induce involuntary muscle contractions that cause temporary incapacitation of the target individual.

Electroshock weapons were developed as a less-than-lethal use-of-force alternative and have become the preferred or prescribed non-lethal weapons option for a growing number of criminal justice, law enforcement and corrections agencies.

More than 11,500 agencies have acquired the technology with approximately 260,000 electroshock devices deployed, according to industry reports.

Officer and target subject injuries resulting from use-of-force encounters and use-of-deadly-force rates have declined with the deployment of electroshock weapons, according to several agency studies.

However, several healthy adults have died following exposure to an electroshock weapon, according to the Department of Justice. Since 2001, more than 300 individuals have died in the United States and Canada after being exposed to electroshock devices, according to human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Critics have called on the federal and state governments to implement strict guidelines for the use of electroshock weapons, such as minimum threshold exposures that incapacitate different groups of people without endangering at-risk individuals.

However, inconsistent reports regarding the output of electroshock weapons and the absence of standardized assessments of the amplitude and voltage delivered prevent the development of rules-of-deployment guidelines, according to the NIST.

The National Institute of Justice is in the final stages of the two-year study, “Deaths Following Electro Muscular Disruption,” and published the expert panel’s interim report in June 2008.

The panel found no conclusive evidence in the current body of research that electroshock devices pose a high risk of serious injury or death when deployed reasonably against healthy adults.

Research suggests that factors, such as target body size/weight or dart placement in the chest, may lower the safety margin for cardiac dysrhythmia, but agencies need not refrain from deploying electroshock weapons in accordance with accepted guidelines, according to the report.

However, the medical risks of repeated or continuous electroshock exposure are unknown and their role as a contributory or causal factor in recorded deaths is unclear, according to the report.

In addition, the effects of electroshock exposure on at-risk groups, such as the elderly, children, pregnant women, individuals with medical or mental health conditions, are not clearly understood, according to the report.

Electroshock safety margins evidenced against healthy adults may not hold for at-risk populations and agencies should avoid deployment against at-risk groups, where recognized, according to the report.

The NIST program to develop accurate assessment methods and standardized testing is an essential component to establishing the necessary baselines for future medical, safety and performance studies of conducted energy devices, officials say.