the Disillusioned kid: Set to Stun?
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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Set to Stun?

According to local radio, police in Essex are to begin using taser stun guns and have chosen today to dismiss concerns about their safety. For some reason, however, I can't find anything about this online, apart from an Essex Police newsletter (available in pdf here). This reports that there introduction follows trials by five police forces.

The entirely impartial police newsletter soothes worried nerves, noting, that "despite initial conerns about whether the weapon could be lethal, no evidence has been found to deter its introduction to all forces in England and Wales." No evidence, eh? What about the 70 people who have died since 2001 in the US and Canada after being shocked with the guns? The reality, as Amnesty International notes, is that nobody's ever bothered to carry out a proper study into the risks the weapons pose:
Despite being widely deployed, there has been no rigorous, independent and impartial study into the use and effects of tasers, particularly in the case of people suffering from heart disease, or under the influence of drugs.
There are suggestions, however, that the Taser is even more lethal when used against people under the influence of drugs that induce tachycardia (an abnormally rapid heart rate), such as crack and cocaine. This, as you may have realised, is a potential problem given the increased risk that such people will find themselves in a confrontation with the police.

No doubt, proponents of Tasers will interpose that - legitimate concerns aside - the occasionally lethal Tasers are still preferable to nearly-always lethal firearms. This is an attractive argument, particularly in light of the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes on the tube. Unfortunately, what it overlooks is the way that the "non-lethal" appellation plays in lowering the threshold prohibiting the use of weapons. That is, police are likely to use Tasers in many circumstances when they would never even consider using firearms meaning people get shot who otherwise wouldn't have.

Amnesty have compiled extensive reports of the use of Tasers in the US and Canada. It is clear from even a glance that stun guns have been used in many, many cases where the utilisation of weapons is entirely innappropriate. Consider this sample from the Police Department in Chandler Arizona, where Tasers have been used to subdue
  • a female driver of a stolen vehicle being followed by police who, after she crashed the car and fled on foot and was caught by officers, "would not comply with verbal commands and made a move towards her waistband".
  • A trespassing suspect who was tasered when he "resisted being handcuffed".
  • a female suspect who had broken into her grandfather’s apartment and was tasered when she "attempted to walk away from the officer" and "pulled away" when he tried to stop her. The taser was applied five additional times before other officers arrived on the scene.
  • a burglary suspect hiding in an attic when he "refused to comply with commands".
  • a suspect who, stopped for driving with a suspended license, ran away from police.
  • an autistic teenager after he assaulted his mother and wrestled an officer to the ground.
  • a man standing on the sidewalk yelling and screaming at the sky. He was threatened with the taser if he did not comply with police commands to be quiet. He refused to comply and the taser was then deployed. The taser was effective but "as the subject began to get up, the taser was cycled a second time".
  • A thirteen-year-old girl was tasered in a public library after she threw a book at someone and was "yelling obscenities". The case summary states: "The juvenile continued to be verbally disruptive and resisted when officers attempted to place her under arrest. The Taser was displayed and threatened. The juvenile continued to resist by curling into a ball. As the juvenile was preparing to kick at the officer, she was touch-stunned in the middle of her back".
And there seems to be far more where that came from.

Quite apart from their use "in the field", there are very real concerns about the potential to utilise Tasers for torture. Amnesty warn, "Portable and easy to use, with the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button without leaving substantial marks, electro-shock weapons are particularly open to abuse." There is a sickeningly large body of evidence of such weapons being used in this manner in US prisons (see e.g. this report on Red Onion State Prison in Virginia), while Amnesty allege that they were carried by the 800th Military Police Brigade who were implicated in the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib. In this country, there were 40 deaths in police custody in 2004, leading many to conclude that police brutality remains a very real problem. Do we really want to be adding Tasers to such a potentially volatile mix?

Maybe I'm just a crazy anarchist, but I'm worried about this, although I'm realistic enough to realise that my concern's unlikely to lead to anything. What I do find striking, however, is the way the police seem to have been able to bring in Tasers with almost no public debate. This is big step. Don't you think we should have talked about it? Considered the ins and outs? Balanced the various risks? ...Is this what democracy looks like?

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