Tasers: A Shock to the Policing System
I was surfing the TV channels last night and found myself watching one of those dreadful programmes that follow police around a town centre on a Friday night. It elicited a mixture of depression and terror: scores of boozed-up Brits throwing punches, bottles and whatever else they could get hold of. Revolting levels of casual violence, with the poor police officers being forced to intervene and frequently putting themselves in danger of assault.
So I can entirely appreciate why police officers are keen to get their hands on Tasers, the electro-shock stun guns that are due to be rolled out to officers across the UK, according to a new Home Office announcement. Tasers fire two darts into their target with wires attached, down which 50,000 volts are passed, causing the subject to collapse in excruciating pain and briefly incapacitating them. They have been described as a safer alternative to using ‘lethal force’, or shooting someone.
The problem is that Tasers can kill. Since 2001 over 320 people have died in the US and Canada after being ‘Tasered’. In several cases the coroner has listed Taser as a cause of death – often where people have a pre-existing heart problem or if they are high on drugs. They have also frequently been used, in technical speak, ‘further down the force scale’ – in situations where officers should not consider shooting someone with a gun.
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.
I’m not suggesting that British police will be rushing about zapping people left, right and centre. But the US example does show the danger of ‘mission creep’ when police are given more weapons. It also shows the need for extensive police training.
Officers must be taught not just how to aim and shoot the Taser 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. Their training 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 all officers armed with Tasers. It’s a potentially dangerous omission.
No-one can 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 use firearms in order to do this; and in some situations, electro-shock weapons like Tasers might offer an alternative.
But Tasers should only ever be used as an alternative to lethal force or in situations where the lives and safety of police or the public are in danger. And they should only be used by a limited number of police officers who have been given specialist, ongoing training to firearms standards.
We must not forget that Tasers are dangerous, potentially lethal weapons. Their deployment in the UK must be carefully controlled.
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.