UK: Tasers trialled by UK police revealed as potentially lethal and prone to abuse in new report

Amnesty International UK is calling for a public statement by the UK Home Office and police chiefs that the potentially-lethal devices will be treated as such: only issued to trained firearms officers and used only where necessary to avoid threats to life or serious injury. The organisation is also calling for a rigorous, independent and impartial study into the use and effects of tasers.

The devices, which deliver a 50,000-volt electric shock and intense pain, are inherently open to abuse, says the report. In the US they have been used against unruly schoolChildren's rights including a nine-year-old, against pregnant Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights - one of whom lost her baby shortly afterwards – and against unarmed, mentally ill people and those who simply fail to comply immediately with a verbal command.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

'Tasers have been used in the US against pregnant Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights, unruly schoolChildren's rights and mentally ill people. In some cases, simply walking away from a police officer has led to people getting a 50,000 volt electric shock. Is this a glimpse into the future of UK policing?

'With over 70 deaths following taser use in the US, surely we must have a full enquiry into their effects before the government even considers any wider deployment on Britain’s streets.

'We want an assurance from the Home Office and police chiefs that tasers will only be issued to trained firearms officers and kept locked in the firearms box. Tasers could kill, so they must be treated as lethal weapons.'

The report includes a review by Amnesty International of information on 74 taser-involved deaths, based on a range of sources, including autopsy reports in 21 cases. Most of those who died were unarmed men who, while displaying disturbed or combative behaviour, did not appear to present a serious threat to the lives or safety of others.

Kate Allen said:

'Many experts believe taser shocks may exacerbate a risk of heart failure in people who are under the influence of drugs or suffer underlying health problems such as heart disease - risk factors present in many of the cases we examined.

'What is more, tasers have the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button, without leaving substantial marks. This makes them particularly open to abuse.'

Cases

Willam Teasley, aged 31, died in Anderson County Detention Center, South Carolina in August 2004. Officers reportedly used a taser to subdue him after he became violent while being booked into the jail and 'shortly after he was shocked [he] stopped breathing'. A preliminary autopsy reportedly showed he had died from cardiac arrest. The deputy county coroner, Charlie Boseman, is quoted as saying the taser contributed to Teasley’s death, combined with a medical history that included heart disease. Teasley reportedly had other health problems, including severe brain damage resulting from an accident in 2003. The preliminary autopsy report was passed to the State Law Enforcement Division investigation team, with a final determination of manner of death pending the results of this inquiry.

James Borden was arrested in November 2003 and died shortly after the administration of the last of six electro-shocks, delivered while his hands were cuffed behind his back. The medical examiner released a statement listing cause of death as a heart attack, drug intoxication and electrical shock.

One of the officers involved reportedly said:

'I asked Borden to lift up his foot to remove the shorts, but he was being combative and refused. I dry stunned Borden in the lower abdominal area … We got Borden into the booking area. Borden was still combative and uncooperative. I dried stunned [sic] Borden in the buttocks area...' After the final shock, the officer 'noticed that Borden was no longer responsive and his face was discoloured.'

Clarence Phelps and his pregnant daughter, Romona Madison, filed a lawsuit in September 2004 against police from Evergreen Park Police Department, Illinois, alleging that they were tasered and subjected to excessive force outside their home. On 18 September 2004 at the daughter’s wedding reception, police arrived in response to a complaint about loud music and people dancing in the driveway. According to police accounts reported in the media, Phelps was uncooperative and was stunned with the taser after he allegedly pushed two officers. The police claimed Madison struck and shoved several officers and ran into the house. She was discovered hiding in a clothes cupboard and, after being warned, was shot twice in the abdomen with a taser when she refused to come out. Lawyers for the family claim that neither Phelps nor Madison had fought with officers and that Madison was followed into the house by overzealous officers who tasered her despite being told by several guests that she was two months pregnant. Madison was taken to a police station and released the same night, after being charged in connection with the incident. She received no medical attention while in police custody, apart from having taser darts removed by paramedics. She went to a hospital immediately on her release and, according to her lawyer, was told her baby’s vital signs were weak.

Notes

  • The report recognizes the need to develop non-lethal or 'less than lethal' force options, but highlights the fact that the use of stun technology in law enforcement raises a number of concerns for the protection of human rights.
  • Amnesty acknowledges that there may be situations where tasers can effectively be used as 'stand-off', defensive weapons as an alternative to firearms in order to save lives. However, it appears that in practice tasers are rarely used as an alternative to firearms in the USA and most departments place them at a relatively low level on the 'force scale'.

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