Tasers: Safety of device questioned as death toll hits 334-mark
Posted: 16 December 2008
Tasers are inherently open to abuse and are not as safe as the industry would suggest, said Amnesty International today as it reiterated its call to the UK government to limit deployment of the weapon to life-threatening situations and to a small number of specialist officers who receive rigorous training.
The call came as the organisation released one of the most detailed reports to date on the safety of the stun gun, revealing that 334 people have died in the United States after being shot by a Taser since 2001.
Amnesty International's new report, which includes information from 98 autopsies, found that 90 per cent of those who died after being stunned with a Taser were unarmed and many did not appear to present a serious threat.
Many were subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks - far more than the five-second standard cycle - or by more than one officer at a time. Some people were even shocked for failing to comply with police commands after they had been incapacitated by a first shock.
Amnesty International UK's Arms Programme Director, Oliver Sprague said:
'As our findings from the US reveal, Tasers are potentially lethal and are inherently open to abuse. They can inflict severe pain at the push of a button, without leaving substantial marks.
'The Taser is clearly a dangerous weapon and should only be used in very limited circumstances where strictly necessary to protect life or avoid very serious injuries. It must be kept in the hands of a small number of highly trained specialist officers.'
In at least six of the cases where people died, Tasers were used on individuals suffering from medical conditions such as seizures.
One doctor who had crashed his car when he suffered an epileptic seizure, died after being repeatedly shocked at the side of the highway when, dazed and confused, he failed to comply with an officer's commands.
Police officers in USA have also used Tasers on schoolchildren, pregnant women and even an elderly person with dementia.
Existing studies - many of them funded by the industry - have found the risk of these weapons to be generally low in healthy adults. However, these studies are limited in scope and have pointed to the need for more understanding of the effects of such devices on vulnerable people, including those under the influence of stimulant drugs or in poor health.
Recent independently-funded animal studies have found that the use of these kinds of electro-shock weapons can cause fatal arrhythmias in pigs, raising further questions about their safety on human subjects.
It was also recently reported that nearly ten per cent of 41 Tasers tested in a study commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, delivered significantly more current than the manufacturer said was possible, underscoring the need for independent verification and testing of such devices.
Although most of the 334 deaths have been attributed to factors such as drug intoxication, medical examiners and coroners have concluded that Taser shocks caused or contributed to at least 50 of these deaths.
Most US police departments allow Tasers to be used at a level of threat well below that at which officers would be authorised to use lethal force; some even place them at the level of 'hands-on' force or just above 'verbal commands'.
Oliver Sprague continued:
'This is one American practice we definitely do not want to see replicated here in the UK.
'We must never put dangerous electro-shock weapons like Tasers in the hands of anyone but highly trained specialist officers.
'The UK Government has to commit to ensuring that Tasers are only used in life-threatening situations and that they are given to a small number of specialist officers. Otherwise the consequences could well be disastrous.'