Friday, March 31, 2006

Tasers killing more people

In the days before "bird flu every time, all the time," and about the time EM started, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) released a report expressing concern about the increasing use of tasers in the US, documenting about 70 taser-associated deaths in people hit by this "non-lethal" weapon in North America. Many of the fatalities also were individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so coroners tended to discount the role of the taser in the sudden deaths, although there was increasing concern that the tasers were combining with drugs or alcohol to cause the deaths. We blogged it a bunch of times after that (for example, here), reporting a variety of incidents where tasers were used on grandmothers and children, among others.

If you don't know what a taser is, it is a weapon used to incapacitate people by jolting them with 50,000 volts delivered by tiny darts trailing wires shot from a gun-like device. In 2004, AIUSA called on the police to limit their use to situations where a lesser use of force was not feasible and where the alternative would be use of a firearm. In a new report, just issued, AIUSA notes little has been done to control their use since the 2004 report.
With few exceptions, law enforcement agencies in the USA have not heeded Amnesty International’s call to suspend use of tasers pending further study. In fact, more agencies have moved to adopt tasers, arguing that they are safer than many other types of force. More than 7,000 law enforcement agencies in the US, out of a total of 18,000, now count tasers as part of their arsenal. Few place tasers solely on a level of "deadly force" and some have argued that placing tasers even considerably lower on the force scale may avoid situations escalating to the level of a deadly confrontation.

However, Amnesty International believes that the mounting death toll of people struck by tasers makes the need for a full, independent and rigorous inquiry, as well as restrictions on use, more urgent than ever. More than 150 people in the USA have now died after being struck by tasers since June 2001, 61 in 2005 alone. Furthermore, the patterns of concern highlighted in AI’s 2004 report continue to apply. Most of those who died were agitated and/or under the influence of drugs and most were also subjected to multiple or prolonged electro-shocks. Among taser related deaths in the past year, for example, 40 were shocked more than 3 times and one person as many as 19 times. (Amnesty International USA)
And the tempo of deaths is increasing. Only three were recorded in 2001, but 13 in 2002 and 17 in 2003. The number in 2004 jumped to 48 and by 2005 it was 61. Already in the first two months of 2006 there have been 10 deaths. Using press, autopsy and police and paramedic reports, AIUSA looked at 152 taser-related deaths and found they fit a pattern:
  • Most of those who died in custody were unarmed and were not posing a serious threat to police officers, members of the public, or themselves

  • Those who died were generally subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks

  • Use of the taser was often accompanied by the use of restraints and/or chemical incapacitant sprays

  • Many of those who died had underlying health problems, such as heart conditions or mental illness, or were under the influence of drugs
  • Most of those who died went into cardiac or respiratory arrest at the scene
Tasers have been used on prisoners, hospital patients, people already in restraints, the very young and the elderly (see the AIUSA for more case details). It is clear there are no consistent guidelines for the use of these potentially fatal weapons by law enforcement agencies in the US.

AIUSA is not of the view tasers should never be used (and neither are we):
Amnesty International acknowledges that there may be situations where use of tasers in dart firing mode may be a preferable alternative to deadly force in order to save lives. These situations might include instances where officers or bystanders face serious injury from a sharp edged instrument such as a knife or a broken bottle, or in an armed stand off. Tasers may be used in situations like these when less extreme measures have proved ineffective or without a promise of the intended result. However, police officers who deploy tasers should, according to the UN Principles, "exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate object to be achieved" and must "minimise damage and injury and respect and preserve human life". Accordingly, Amnesty International believes these weapons should never be considered a ‘low’ or ‘intermediate’ force option.

In practice, however, tasers are often used in situations where deadly force would never be justified. The taser continues to be used as a routine force tool, not as a last resort where the only other option would be use of a conventional firearm. Police departments in the USA continue to place tasers too low on their force scales, with some departments allowing tasers to be used when individuals refuse to comply with officers demands. Amnesty International remains concerned that tasers continue to be used in jails, where suspects are already in custody in a controlled environment. (Amnesty Report, cites omitted)
You may have trouble identifying with the victims of taser use, but on numerous occasions they have been used on "ordinary" citizens caught up in some kind of routine situation, such as a dispute at a Chuck E Cheese or a (naked) jogger. OK, so you don't jog naked. If you did, you also wouldn't be carrying a concealed weapon or threatening anyone with harm (unless you consider the fear of going to hell by some right wing fundamentalist who sees someone's genitals).

I'd rather be tasered than shot, but increasingly people are more likely to be tasered than controlled some other way. At some point we will need to come to terms with the fact that the label "non-lethal force" doesn't necessarily designate non-lethal force.