Taser: An officer's weapon of choice

The Taser is touted for saving lives and preventing injury, but a new study says that some police officers reach for the weapon too quickly

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The Taser sounds like the perfect law enforcement tool. Simple, effective and generally safe, it allows officers to subdue a suspect using electricity rather than resorting to blunt or deadly force. But a recent study found that some officers may be too quick to use the popular stun guns when conventional procedures would suffice. As David Martin reports, there's growing concern that Tasers may be inflicting unnecessary pain and, in rare cases, lead to death.

The following is a script of "Taser" which aired on Nov. 13, 2011. David Martin is correspondent, Mary Walsh, producer.

The hottest thing in police work these days is the Taser, a device which sends painful jolts of electricity into the human body, throwing muscles into uncontrollable spasms. Police see it as a whole new way of controlling people without injuring either themselves or the suspect.

Frequently the mere sight of a Taser will convince a criminal to give up without a fight. It is so effective police are sometimes too quick to use it, subjecting people to excruciating pain for no good reason. Some have even died after being hit by a Taser.

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Whatever you think of Taser after watching this story you better get used to it. Taser is now used by more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. It all started when two brothers - Rick and Tom Smith - founded TASER International and set out to corner the stun gun market.

Tom Smith: We believe in what we're doing. We have changed the world. Very few people can say that.

By Tom Smith's count more than 500,000 law enforcement officers in the United States now carry Tasers. He and his brother Rick have taken what began as a backyard experiment and built it into a policeman's weapon of choice - a device which uses electricity to subdue unruly suspects without having to resort to the blunt force of a billy club or the deadly force of a firearm.

Rick Smith: The idea of using electricity to incapacitate at its core is, frankly, a beautiful and simplistic idea. That rather than causing death or injury to someone, if we can just temporarily take away control of their body and get them under control, it's about as nonviolent as you could get.

The Taser uses compressed gas to fire two small darts - attached to copper wires. When they pierce the skin, the electric current flows through the body seizing up the muscles and sending the suspect crashing to the ground screaming in pain.

Geoffrey Alpert: This is a whole new device. It's a whole new way to control people.

Geoffrey Alpert has written what to-date is the definitive study of Taser use for the National Institute of Justice.

Alpert: When used properly, a Taser is a very effective tool in law enforcement.

David Martin: Well, then I guess the question is, do police use a Taser properly?

Alpert: Well, that's the million dollar question.

Alpert's study found instances of what he calls "lazy cop syndrome" - using the Taser instead of proper police procedures.

Martin: So, Taser is now the go-to weapon?

Alpert: Yes sir, we see very often that Taser is the, is what officers turn to very quickly now in an encounter.

Martin: Are they using them too quickly?

Alpert: Some are. Some are using them way too fast.

One of the police departments Alpert studied was Austin, Texas where a police officer was suspended for three days after this traffic stop.

[Driver: I have no idea why you are asking...

Cop: Get out of the vehicle. Take your seat belt off and step out of the vehicle.]

The driver had been going five miles over the speed limit.

[Driver: I have no idea why you're...

Cop: Get to the back of the vehicle and put your hands on the door!

Driver: Hey!

Cop shouting: Get to the back of the vehicle - (shoots Taser)]