Don't taze me, bro!

Saturday, Jun 06, 2009

More than 330 people in the USA are reported to have died after being struck by police Tasers since June 2001.

Thousands of US law enforcement agencies use Tasers: dart-firing electro-shock projectile weapons which can also be used close-up as stun guns. Tasers are among a class of weapon commonly described as “conducted energy devices” (CEDs). They work by delivering a high voltage, low current, electrical charge [of approximately 50,000 volts] designed to disrupt the central nervous system and cause uncontrolled muscle contractions, temporarily incapacitating the subject. The manufacturers of CEDs and the agencies deploying them maintain that they are safer than many conventional weapons in controlling dangerous or combative subjects and that Tasers have saved lives by avoiding the resort by officers to lethal force.

There has been ongoing controversy surrounding the potential lethality of CEDs, especially since the introduction in the past decade of more powerful new generation models. Since June 2001, more than 330 people in the USA are reported to have died after being struck by police Tasers and 25 similar deaths have been reported in Canada. In most cases coroners have attributed the deaths to other causes, such as drug intoxication or “excited delirium”, a term often used to describe someone who is in an agitated or highly disturbed state. However, in at least 50 cases, coroners are reported to have listed the Taser as a cause or contributory factor in the death. Medical examiners’ findings and the role of CEDs in deaths continue to be the subject of dispute.

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While the electrical current from Tasers and similar devices has been described by the manufacturers as too low to trigger a direct fatal shock, some medical experts have suggested that the shocks can disrupt the heart rhythm if the current is applied close to the heart or at a critical point in the cardiac cycle. Recent independently-funded animal studies have found that CED shocks can cause fatal arrhythmias in pigs, raising further questions about their safety on human subjects.

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Amnesty International is further concerned that, while some individuals were highly disturbed and combative, the vast majority (around 90 per cent) of those who died were unarmed, and many did not appear to present a serious threat when they were electro-shocked and subjected to other force. They include people who continued to struggle while in restraints; who were intoxicated but not dangerous; or who walked or ran from officers during non-life threatening incidents. Several individuals were shocked for failing to comply with commands when they were already incapacitated from a first shock. Some were shocked by more than one officer at a time. Examples include a mentally ill teenager who died after being shocked repeatedly by four guards while he was lying naked and handcuffed on the floor of a jail. In another case, a medical doctor who crashed his car when he suffered an epileptic seizure, died after being repeatedly shocked at the side of a highway when, dazed and confused, he failed to comply with an officer’s commands.

Less Than Lethal? The use of Stun Weapons in U.S. Law Enforcement, Amnesty International, December, 16 2008, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/010/2008/en/65fd4233-cb63-11dd-9ec2-e57da9519f8c/amr510102008en.pdf.

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