Tasers are widely promoted as being a useful weapon, safer than many other weapons or techniques used to restrain dangerous, aggressive and focused individuals. In practice, however, they are commonly used to subdue individuals who do not pose a serious and immediate threat to the lives or safety of others. In many reported instances police actions using tasers appear to have breached international standards on the use of force as well as the prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.And this, from the American College of Emergency Physicians. [emphasis mine]
Amnesty International considers that electro-shock weapons are inherently open to abuse as they can inflict severe pain at the push of a button without leaving substantial marks, and can further be used to inflict repeated shocks. While the capacity for abuse exists in whichever mode tasers are deployed, Amnesty International believes that tasers in "touch" stun gun mode are particularly open to abuse, as they are designed for "pain compliance" and tend to be used against individuals who are already in custody or under police control, often with multiple shocks.
Amnesty International is further concerned that, despite being widely deployed, there has been no rigorous, independent and impartial study into the use and effects of tasers. Medical opinion has continued to raise concern about potential health risks from tasers, particularly in the case of people suffering from heart disease, or under the influence of certain drugs. Amnesty International’s concerns are heightened by a growing number of deaths of individuals struck by police tasers. The organization believes that the taser cannot be ruled out as a possible contributory factor in some deaths. Concerns about the risks associated with tasers increase as they become more widely deployed.
Many police agencies claim that tasers have the potential to save lives or avoid serious injury in cases where police officers might otherwise resort to firearms or other forms of deadly force. It is self-evident that tasers are less-lethal or injurious than firearms. Amnesty acknowledges that there may be situations where tasers might effectively be used as "stand-off", defensive weapons as an alternative to firearms in order to save lives. This appears to be the aim of the limited introduction of tasers to UK police who operate under strict rules. However, it appears that in practice tasers are rarely used as an alternative to firearms in Canada and many officers appear to use them at a relatively low level on the "force scale". Amnesty International further notes that measures such as stricter controls and training on the use of force and firearms are likely to be more effective overall in reducing unnecessary deaths or injuries.
Amnesty International welcomes the announcement in August 2004 by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police that they, in conjunction with the Canadian Police Research Centre, the RCMP and the National Research Council, will conduct a review of all taser literature, field reports and other international data with a view to synthesize.
The organisation feels however that this review does not go far enough as it will not involve any new research involving the new generation of tasers - the more powerful M26 or X26 models - that are currently deployed in the Canada, and on which there has been virtually no independent, medical literature published to date. The only medical studies prior to the marketing of these new generation taser models were tests on animals commissioned by the Taser International; none of these studies has been peer reviewed.
As can be seen, there remain more questions than answers. Available studies, although limited, would appear to suggest that the TASER® does not precipitate ventricular dysrhythmias. The question remains whether the experimental end-point under investigation is even correct or appropriate. Studies should be undertaken to identify subgroups of individuals at higher risk for in-custody death after TASER® deployment. As part of the risk assessment process, an analysis of TASER® discharge outcomes specifically against individuals with suspected excited delirium should be undertaken, so as to determine the actual risk of death when deployed against this subgroup.
Until more studies can be performed specifically addressing these questions, the following recommendations appear reasonable:
- First and foremost, law enforcement and EMS personnel should be trained in the recognition and management of excited delirium.
- Use of multiple TASER® discharges, while not always avoidable, should be minimized wherever possible.
- Use of TASER® against smaller individuals should be undertaken judiciously.
In the end, the continued use of TASER® remains one of public perception and risk-benefit analysis. Law enforcement and the general public must understand that the term non-lethal, as defined by the US Marine Corps and used by TASER International, does not imply lack of ability to kill, but rather an intent that the weapon system "incapacitate personnel or material, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment" . The TASER® system should be viewed more accurately as less-lethal, rather than non-lethal or less-than-lethal.
So police are using a weapon with an unknown and uncontrollable risk of death . Russian roulette.