A Shock to the System

We were appalled at Amnesty by video footage that came out last week on YouTube, showing the last moments of a man who died after being stunned with an electro-shock Taser by police at Vancouver International Airport last month.

The video footage showed Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski being restrained after he became agitated in the airport arrivals area.  Newspapers reported he was meant to be meeting his mother and after a mix-up he was stranded at the airport baggage area for ten hours. To the YouTube onlooker, it seemed a simple case where police would calm someone down, give them a cup of tea and make a couple of calls to sort it all out.

Instead, the video shows him being stunned several times with 50,000 volts of electricity, including while he was restrained on the floor by police officers. According to an eye witness, an officer also used his knee to pin Dziekanskis neck and head against the ground. Another officer is seen striking him several times with a baton. Minutes later, a medical emergency team pronounced him dead at the scene.

 

Another story also came out on Friday, about a man who slipped into a diabetic coma on a bus in Leeds and was Tasered by police who thought he was suicide bomber. Nicholas Gaubert spoke for the first time last week about his ordeal in July 2005, after he had a fit on the bus and fell into a coma, clutching his rucksack armed police were called and a man who should have been given medical attention was instead given a massive electric shock.

Both cases illustrate why were so worried about the use of Tasers in the UK, as police chiefs call for their wider deployment. At the moment they can only be used by trained firearms officers, save for a dozen pilot schemes where other officers have been armed with the devices.  But there have been increasing calls for their deployment to all police officers in the UK.

Robert Dziekanskis case is not unique in Canada, where Amnesty has documented 16 other recent cases where people have died after being stunned with police Tasers.  In the USA more than 280 people have died after being Tasered by police. Although coroners have attributed most of these deaths to other causes, the Taser was found to have been a cause or possible contributory factor in a number of the deaths. Tasers are dangerous and potentially-lethal weapons.

It is a classic slippery slope. Tasers were introduced as an alternative to lethal force shooting someone with a gun and its hard to argue that they could be anything other than less lethal in those specific circumstances. But would police really have shot an agitated man waiting at an airport or someone apparently asleep on a bus?

 

What were worried about is a drift towards US-style policing, where Tasers have frequently been used to get people to comply with officers instructions, despite there being no apparent threat to the lives of officers or members of the public. We do not want to see a replication in the UK of US-style policing where unarmed people posing little threat are frequently given massive and potentially fatal electric shocks by the police.

Earlier this year North Wales Police Chief Constable, Richard Brunstrom made an alarming comment suggesting the Taser could be used as a tool of compliance.  Hes quoted as saying "I very strongly advise you, if faced by an officer and a Taser, that you follow the instructions of the nice police officer, because you will not enjoy the consequences of disobedience."

Also Amnesty International has documented the use of Tasers in the US against unruly schoolchildren, pregnant women (one of whom lost her baby afterwards) and, startlingly, a nine-year-old girl who was already handcuffed. In Ohio, Police officers Tasered 82-year-old Alfred Jim Edwards after they found him urinating in a car park. Officers stated that Edwards continually tried to walk away from them and that he then resisted arrest. His family point out that he suffers from dementia.

This is why extensive police training is so important, not just learning how to aim and shoot the device but when to shoot it. This is the kind of training that firearms officers get, recreating complex and stressful situations where a split-second decision can mean life or death, training that continues on a rolling basis to help them identify whether someone is a genuine threat. Current plans do not allow for this kind of extensive (and expensive) training for officers armed with Tasers. Its a potentially dangerous omission.

No-one should deny that the police do a difficult and dangerous job on our behalf; they have a right and a duty to protect themselves and the public from life-threatening situations. In some extreme circumstances, international law allows them to kill people in order to do this; and in some situations, electro-shock weapons might offer an alternative. But Tasers should only ever be used as an alternative to lethal force, in situations where the lives of police or the public are in danger. And they should only be used by police who have been given specialist, ongoing training to firearms standards.

Handing out potentially-lethal Taser weapons to officers who have only received two or three days of training is a recipe for disaster, the kind of disaster that happened to the Dziekanski family at Vancouver airport.

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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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