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Tasers: Oops, Newt's done it again!

Newspaper pundit Newton Emerson regularly devotes all or some of his twice-weekly Irish News column to attacking Amnesty International, for everything from our award-winning education work in primary schools, to our position – or at least a position which he assigns to us – on electro-shock devices.

Today's 'Eye of Newt' column is no different, making up for its flawed logic with sheer predictability. This time Newton is having a pop at Amnesty for not having issued a condemnation of the PSNI for having used a Taser to thwart a robbery.

Not having issued statements of condemnation on the previous occasions when the PSNI have used the device, it seems odd that Newton would expect Amnesty to issue one in this instance. Although, of course, if his intention was to mischieviously invent a policy position which he could then attack, then he has succeeded magnificently once again. What's that called? Oh yes, a straw man argument…

Of course, there are many things about which Amnesty has not issued a condemnation. Maybe Newton can make a long list. And fill some future 'wry' columns. Nice work if you can get it.

Occasionally, I feel I have no option but to respond to Mr Emerson through the letters page of the Irish News. Unlike Newton, however, I am not paid to fill its columns, so usually manage to restrain myself. I'll not be responding this time either, so for the record (and in case Newton or others missed it, as it was published just before Christmas and is only available now via subscription), here's my response to his last column attacking our report on Taser use in the USA…

Newton Emerson’s response (18 December 08) to Amnesty International’s latest report on Tasers in the United States presents a skewed attack on the study.

Amnesty International’s comprehensive 130-page report is one of the most detailed studies yet on the use of Tasers in the United States. Far from being ‘hysterical’, the research is considered and detailed, with data drawn from 98 available autopsy reports, official investigations, information from families of the deceased and other sources.

As we state clearly in our report, most of the 334 deaths have been attributed to factors such as drug intoxication or other health problems separate from the five-second, sometimes repeated, 50,000-volt electro-shock. In the cases we were in a position to examine, medical examiners and coroners have concluded that Taser shocks caused or contributed to at least 50 of these deaths.

Amnesty International continues to document reported deaths, pending further rigorous research into the effects of Tasers, because it believes the role played by the electro-shock devices is often unclear, even where medical examiners have listed other causes of death.

Existing studies – many of them funded by the industry – have found the risk of these weapons to be generally low in healthy adults. Yet no study has adequately examined the impact of Tasers on potentially at-risk individuals – people who have medical conditions, take prescription medications, are mentally ill or are under the influence of drugs.
Amnesty International’s report has concluded that more detailed studies need to take place with this weapon, particularly on improving understanding of the effects of such electro-shock devices on vulnerable people, including those under the influence of stimulant drugs or in poor health.

As Mr Emerson sought to discredit Amnesty’s report, he has missed the fundamental point: people have died after being shot by a Taser and so these weapons should be treated as potentially lethal weapons and consequently used with extreme caution.

Whether it be one death or 334, most people would agree that each such death should be taken extremely seriously. Weapons which are potentially lethal should only be used by specialist firearms officers – who undergo intensive and rigorous training – and under very limited circumstances – i.e. they should treated in the same manner in which police officers use firearms.  

A few years ago, when Tasers were first introduced to police officers in the UK, that was exactly the approach which the Government and Chief Constables used to reassure a concerned public. Yet only two weeks ago, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith gave the order for Tasers to be made available to some 30,000 general purpose police officers in England and Wales.

This signals a slippery slope towards a US policing model, where Tasers are now used routinely to enforce compliance rather than as a weapon restricted to life-threatening circumstances. Of the 334 deaths outlined in our report, 90% of those who died after being struck with a Taser were unarmed and many did not appear to present a serious threat.

One of the cases on which we report involved a doctor who had crashed his car when he suffered an epileptic seizure. He died after being repeatedly shocked at the side of the road when, dazed and confused, he failed to comply with an officer's commands. The doctor died within minutes thereafter. US police officers have also used Tasers on schoolchildren, pregnant women and even an elderly person with dementia.

Our central message to people in Northern Ireland – and particularly the Chief Constable and the Policing Board – is that we should not follow this potentially fatal model of Taser-based policing. Urgent assurances should be now sought – and given – that this is one American practice that will not be replicated here in Northern Ireland.

For those readers who would like to read the actual Amnesty International report, rather than just Newton Emerson’s slanted version of it, I direct them to a free download available at


Patrick Corrigan

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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