Monday, September 19, 2005

Taser: Set to Stun?

UK: Tasers may sound like something out of a bad science fiction movie, but are in fact very real. The devices fire two needle-pointed darts connected to insulated wire at 180ft per second. When these connect with skin an electrical circuit is completed and 50,000 volts passes through the target for a full five seconds.

This over-stimulates the nervous system causing the muscles to lock up, incapacitating the target. The potential of stun-guns to act as a "non-lethal alternative" to firearms has been widely trumpeted by proponents and the weapons have become increasingly popular with police forces around the world. Some 130,000 are carried by law enforcement officials in the US, for instance. Impressed by apparent successes elsewhere, the devices are now being taken up by police forces in the UK. This may not be the positive development proponents claim it is.

According to the local press in Essex where I live, taser stun guns are to be supplied to all the county's police officers within a matter of weeks. Officers will be issued with X26 Tasers, a less powerful version of the weapon which has previously been carried by members of the force's tactical firearms unit. Stun guns have been piloted by Northamptonshire, North Wales, Metropolitan, Thames Valley and Lincolnshire police forces since April 2003 and their deployment in Essex reflects the fact that they have now been approved for use by all forces in England and Wales.

In a newsletter produced in October of last year, Essex police described the weapon as "one of the force's less lethal public order options" and sought to soothe worried nerves, insisting that "[d]espite initial concerns the weapon could be lethal, no evidence has been found to deter its introduction to all forces in England and Wales." Unfortunately, whether or not the police were able to turn up such evidence, others have done and the picture that emerges is a worrying one. Amnesty International note, "More than 70 people in the USA and Canada have died since 2001, after being electro-shocked with taser guns. While coroners have generally attributed cause of death to factors such as drug intoxication, in at least five cases they have found the taser played a role."

Amnesty point out that despite being widely deployed by police forces around the world "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 stun-guns may be even more lethal when used against people under the influence of drugs that induce tachyardia (an abnormally rapid heart rate), such as crack and cocaine. This is obviously 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 extra-judicial execution of Jean Charles de Menezes on the tube in July. Unfortunately, what this defence overlooks is the way that the "non-lethal" appellation serves to lower the threshold prohibiting the use of weapons. That is, police are likely to use tasers in many circumstances where they would never even consider using firearms.

In fact, as Amnesty point out, "it appears that in practice tasers are rarely used as an alternative to firearms in the USA and most departments place them at a relatively low level on the 'force scale'." In reports on the use of such weapons in the US, Amnesty document a panoply of cases where tasers have been used not only where a firearm would never have been considered, but where the use of any kind of weapon is completely inappropriate. In Chandler, Arizona, for instance, tasers were used to subdue an autistic teenager after he assaulted his mother and wrestled an officer to the ground; a man shouting and yelling at the sky who refused to desist; and a thirteen-year old who threw a book at somebody and was shouting obscenities. In November 2004, a black woman in Seattle was stopped for speeding and tasered after she refused to get out of the car. This case is particularly shocking because the woman was eight months pregnant. Fortunately she gave birth to a healthy girl in January, but the potential risks are obvious (and as noted above, almost entirely unstudied).

On evaluating the evidence they have compiled, Amnesty conclude that "that tasers are commonly used to secure compliance in routine arrest and non-life threatening situations, including use against persons not actively resisting arrest, and against non-violent protesters." This treatment, they suggest, in some circumstances constitutes a violation of the international standards prohibiting torture.

Beyond their use "in the field," concerns have also been expressed about the use of tasers once suspects are in custody. 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." Human rights organisations have accrued a wealth of evidence of tasers being used in the US prison system, often against prisoners who are already fully restrained or guilty of minor misconduct which poses no physical threat. In Birmingham, Alabama the mayor ordered local authorities to stop using the devices after an inmate was found dead in his cell twelve hours after a stun gun had been used to subdue him.

While few details have been provided about the deployment of tasers by US forces, it is perhaps telling that among the units to whom they were issued in 2003 was the 800th Military Police Brigade, implicated in the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib.

In this country, there were 40 deaths in police custody in 2004. Few people believe that these can all be attributed to suicide, drugs or natural causes. Police brutality remains a very real concern, particularly to those from ethnic minorities. Tasers would make such abuse all the easier. Do we really want to be adding stun guns into such a potentially volatile mix? More to the point, do those most concerned about finding themselves at the sharp end, want to see them added?

Whatever the concerns about such weapons, it seems that tasers are likely to become a common sight on British streets. The Police Federation, which represent the junior ranks, has called for funding for them to be supplied to every British officer. Kevin Coles, co-founder of Protec Systems, the UK distributor, said that up to 7,000 firearms officers in Britain had already been trained to use the weapon. Nevertheless, equipping all of the UK's police forces would increase sales by more than 90 per cent to 140,000, according to Taser International, the US-based manufacturer. Which goes some way perhaps towards explaining why, president and co-founder of Taser, Tom Smith is so dismissive of Amnesty's concerns about the weapon. He alleged, "All they do is clip newspapers and compile a body count.")

It is striking that large numbers - perhaps even all - of British police officers are to be armed with a weapon which has the potential to kill and has been shown to facilitate abuse, yet there has been next to no public debate on the issue. Shouldn't we have discussed this? Considered the dangers? Balanced the risks? Evaluated the evidence? It's much easier, of course, to trust in our social superiors and acquiesce to their every whim. Not any safer, but much easier.

Richard Hindes is an activist currently living in Essex. He maintains a blog at Disullusioned Kid blogspot and welcomes feedback on anythings he writes at Death threats will be rated for originality and style.

By Richard Hindes posted 19 September 05


G8 protesters face police stun-guns

Key points
* Taser stun-guns will be available to officers policing G8 summit
* Weapons blamed for deaths of 104 civilians in US and Canada
* Guns fire electric wires delivering 50,000-volt shocks

Key quote
* "Tasers are potentially lethal and inherently open to abuse because they leave no visible marks. There should be an open and independent inquiry into their safety and effects, and tight controls on their use - not a move towards wider deployment." - STEPHEN BALLINGER, AMNESTY

Story in full POLICE dealing with civil unrest during the G8 summit in Scotland will have in their armoury controversial weapons that have been blamed for the deaths of 104 civilians in the United States and Canada.

Sweeping stun guns to target crowds

Weapons that can incapacitate crowds of people by sweeping a lightning-like beam of electricity across them are being readied for sale to military and police forces in the US and Europe.

Related Links:

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