NI: ‘Less lethal’ doesn’t make it right

Reproduced with permission from the News Letter

Amnesty International knows that the police have a difficult and dangerous job to do. Any workman wants the right tools for the job and it is perfectly natural for officers to feel the need for proper protection.

But the Chief Constable’s proposal to introduce tasers to our streets should trigger deep concern in everyone in Northern Ireland interested in safe and sensible policing.

Let’s be crystal clear about this. Amnesty would welcome the PSNI getting less-lethal alternatives to firearms, as long as these alternatives are well-tested and known to be safe.

Unfortunately neither is true about the taser – a potentially lethal electro-shock weapon.

The taser delivers 50,000 volts of electric shock into a person’s body. Designed to debilitate, its effects are immediate; causing collapse, intense pain and loss of control of bodily functions.

In some instances the consequences have proved even more devastating. Amnesty International’s research has shown that more than 150 people have died in the US after being struck by tasers since June 2001 – 61 in 2005 alone – and numbers are continuing to rise.

Many people believe taser shocks may increase a risk of heart failure in people who are under the influence of drugs or suffer underlying health problems such as heart disease. Pregnant Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights, young people and those with physical and mental disabilities are also believed to be particularly vulnerable.

It's simply not fair to ask a police officer, making a split-second decision whether to fire a taser, to assess if the person has a heart condition or is on particular drugs. Who can know? Yet this decision could turn the police officer into an unwitting killer, while using a weapon that he or she has been told is safe.

And it is not only the suspects who have been injured. In 2005, police officers in five US states filed a series of lawsuits against the manufacturers, after being injured by the stun gun during training classes. In future years will PSNI officers be filing their own compensation claims in relation to tasers?

Such reports can only suggest that there remain clear risks with this weapon. And without independent testing of tasers, they cannot be classified as safe. The research studies to date have been limited and inconclusive. Indeed, the most recent independent research into tasers further contradicts safety claims made in earlier studies sponsored by Taser International, the manufacturers of the stun gun.

The company has recently been forced to admit that that their product cannot be described as ‘non-lethal’. This climbdown comes after more than two dozen US states started action against taser products in 2005. Taser International have been forced to remove the phrase “leaves no lasting effects” from information about its product and now refer to the stun gun as being “less lethal” rather than “non-lethal”.

That the manufacturers are being forced to change the wording around this product only highlights the level of uncertainty over taser safety, and serves to undermine confidence in the weapon.

In the United States, home of the taser, some police forces have now started to ditch the weapon. This summer, police in Alabama stopped using the weapons. Last year, a police chief in Indiana declined to buy them for his officers, saying more needs to be known about their effects. The US Department for Homeland Security’s two largest law enforcement agencies (employing 20,000 officers in total), have rejected the taser, saying that there were outstanding “questions about the safety of the device”.

Clearly, life and death questions remain about taser safety. Amnesty believes there must be further independent research into the safety of tasers before any decision can be taken about possible deployment by the PSNI.

Until such research is produced, the Chief Constable should reconsider his proposal and the Policing Board should reject this particular American shock tactic.

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