NI: The truth about tasers

As tasers are becoming a likely reality for the Police Force Northern Ireland, Dahlia Hashad, Program Director for Amnesty International USA, here writes about the use of tasers in American law enforcement and reflects on the impact on human rights.

A six-year-old boy in Florida. A 13-year-old girl in Arizona, restrained in handcuffs. A 71-year-old woman, blind in one eye. These are just a few examples of people who have been subjected by American police to 50,000-volt shocks from a new generation of electro-shock weapons called tasers. And, if the Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde gets his way, soon the weapons could be coming to Northern Ireland.

Tasers are becoming the weapon of choice for more and more police departments across the United States – and the United Kingdom now too - because, their supporters argue, they are safer than traditional weapons. But, while that may be true in theory, the real-life situation is far different – police in the US are using tasers in situations in which they would previously never have used a baton, pepper spray, or a conventional gun. And some people may well be dying as a result.

Tasers are marketed as an alternative to lethal force and have been advertised as a way to deal with some of the most violent, hardened criminals. The guns fire two metal probes at 123 miles an hour, can penetrate up to two inches of clothing, and become lodged in the skin. Then, for five seconds, a 50,000-volt shock overrides a person’s neurological system, contracting all the muscles in the body, causing enormous pain and sometimes leaving burn marks at the site where the probes entered the skin.

The job of police officers is to protect the public’s safety, and officers should have every tool necessary to do their jobs and to ensure their safety as well. In fact, international human rights standards support the development of non-lethal alternatives to firearms. But taser use by police in America has a pretty lousy record.

Instead of being used as alternatives to lethal force, tasers are now routinely being used by many police in contexts where such a harsh response would not previously have been necessary. Indeed, one study showed that more than 80 percent of the individuals shot with tasers in the US have been unarmed.

Widespread use of tasers by American police departments is in all likelihood based on the manufacturer’s assurances that the guns are safe to use on anyone, including Children's rights as young as two-years-old, pregnant Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights, senior citizens, and people suffering from mental illness.

Yet there is a great deal we don’t yet know about this technology. There are no studies, for instance, showing how a 50,000-volt shock might affect the developing brain of a child. The manufacturer maintains that individuals with pre-existing heart conditions are at no increased risk of harm after being shot with a taser, but there is no credible evidence to support those claims.

Amnesty International has documented more than 150 taser-related deaths in the United States since 2001, 61 in 2005 alone. The mounting death toll may well reflect the increasingly widespread use of these weapons and the fact that not enough is known about the dangers they may pose.

Neither the American nor the Northern Irish public ought to be used as guinea pigs in the testing of new technology. Taser use in the US should be suspended until comprehensive, independent scientific and medical testing can determine their safety. And meanwhile, the PSNI and the NI Policing Board should resist the impulse to adopt this particular American export. To do anything else is both irresponsible and a serious risk to the public’s safety.

Find out more about our work to prevent the use of tasers in Northern Ireland

View latest press releases