USA: Stricter limits urged as deaths following police Taser use reach 500

Amnesty urges stricter controls on use of weapon

As the number of people in the USA who have died after being shocked with Tasers reaches 500, Amnesty International has called for tighter rules to limit the use of the potentially lethal weapon.

The death toll of 500 was reached when Johnnie Kamahi Warren died on Monday (13 February) after a police officer in Dothan, Alabama deployed a Taser on him at least twice. The 43-year-old, who was unarmed and reportedly intoxicated, is said to have stopped breathing shortly after being shocked and was pronounced dead in hospital less than two hours later.    

Amnesty International Americas Programme Director Susan Lee said:

“Of the hundreds who have died following police use of Tasers in the USA, dozens and possibly scores of deaths can be traced to unnecessary force being used. This is unacceptable, and stricter guidelines for their use are now imperative.”

Since their introduction into the UK, Amnesty has insisted that UK police officers should only use the weapon in a limited set of circumstances, where there is a serious risk of death, and only by specially-trained officers who undergo intensive and on-going rigorous training, similar to that received by specialist firearms officers.

In the USA, police forces currently permit wide use of the weapons, often in situations that do not warrant such a high level of force.  US law-enforcement agencies defend the use of Tasers, saying the weapons save lives and can be used to subdue dangerous or uncooperative suspects.  But Amnesty insists Tasers should only be used as an alternative in situations where police would otherwise consider using firearms.

In a 2008 report, ‘USA: Stun Weapons in law Enforcement’, Amnesty examined data on hundreds of deaths following Taser use, including autopsy reports in 98 cases and studies on the safety of such devices.  Among the cases reviewed, 90 per cent of those who died were unarmed. Many of the victims were subjected to multiple shocks. Most of the other deaths mentioned in the report were attributed to other causes. However, medical examiners have listed Tasers as a cause or contributing factor in more than 60 deaths, and in a number of other cases the exact cause of death is unknown.

Some studies and medical experts have found that the risk of adverse effects from Taser shocks is higher in people who suffer from a heart condition or whose systems are compromised due to drug intoxication or after a struggle.

Susan Lee said:

“Even if deaths directly from Taser shocks are relatively rare, adverse effects can happen very quickly, without warning, and be impossible to reverse. Given this risk, such weapons should always be used with great caution, in situations where lesser alternatives are unavailable.”

There are continuing reports of US police officers using multiple or prolonged shocks, despite warnings that such usage may increase the risk of adverse effects on the heart or respiratory system.

Deaths in the past year include Allen Kephart, 43, who died in May 2011 after he was stopped by police for an alleged traffic violation in San Bernardino County, California. He died after three officers shocked him up to 16 times. The officers were later cleared of wrongdoing.

In November 2011, Roger Anthony fell off his bicycle and died after a police officer in North Carolina shot him with a Taser. The officer reportedly shocked Anthony – who had a disability and hearing problems – because he did not respond to an order to pull over.

Neither man was armed when police shocked them.

Susan Lee added:

“What is most disturbing about the police use of Tasers is that the majority of those who later died were not a serious threat when they were shocked by police.”

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