November 20, 2009
Undoubtedly, it is in society’s interest to provide law enforcement with the necessary tools to protect the public safety. International standards encourage nonlethal or “less lethal” measures to decrease the risk of death or injury from firearms and other impact weapons. Taser devices, once widely touted as a valuable innovation in this regard, are today at the center of much debate.
Since 2001, about 400 people have died — 39 this year — after being Tasered by law enforcement personnel in the U.S. Amnesty International believes it is time to reconsider the use of Tasers. We believe this is even more essential as Taser International has issued new recommendations calling on law enforcement to avoid shocking people in the chest. This is the first time Taser has admitted a potentially serious health risk with the devices, and we believe it underscores our call for a full evaluation of their use.
Stun gun used too often
[efoods]The reasons for these deaths are an open question; what we do know is that a Taser gun exposes the victim to a 50,000-volt shock that continues until the officer releases his or her finger or the battery depletes. Such a shock overrides the body’s central nervous system, causing uncontrollable contraction of muscles and instant collapse. In a manufacturer’s study, it was found that additional shocks are required one-third of the time.
Because law enforcement officers do not know the medical history or condition of those being Tasered, they are not trained, required or able to determine the potential impact of the shock. The result appears to have been fatal for hundreds of people. It is for this reason that Amnesty International has urged that Taser use be limited to situations in which officers are faced with an immediate threat of death or serious injury that cannot be contained through less extreme options, if not suspended altogether pending an independent study to determine why people have died after being Tasered.
It is important to note that because Tasers are perceived as non-lethal, it is likely that they are being used more frequently, often against the most vulnerable of individuals, including those who are in poor health or under the influence of stimulant drugs. Tasers are being used where batons are not justified and appear to be becoming the weapon of first resort. Force should always be proportional to the threat; however, a study by Amnesty International found that 90 percent of Taser-related deaths 2001-08 involved individuals who were unarmed. We have also found that Tasers were used against the most vulnerable parts of the population, including a 6-year-old boy, an elderly man suffering from dementia and a pregnant woman who later miscarried.
It has become apparent that Tasers have become an alternative to negotiation. The priority for law enforcement officers must always be safe resolution of a situation, even if such actions are not the most expedient.
Clearly, technology has outpaced policy. It is in the public’s best interest to inform lawmakers of the dangers of Taser use. Officials must stop sending police into the field with misguided information regarding Taser use in order to prevent unnecessary deaths.