Tasers – potentially lethal and easy to abuse

Pittsburgh Police officers use tasers on a restrained protester in August 2005

Pittsburgh Police officers use tasers on a restrained protester in August 2005

© Matt Toups/Pittsburgh Indymedia


16 December 2008

Amnesty International has said that industry claims that Taser stun guns are safe and non-lethal do not stand up to scrutiny. The organization called on governments to limit their deployment to life-threatening situations or to suspend their use.

The call came as the organization released one of the most detailed reports to date on the safety of the stun gun. The report "USA: Less than lethal?" is being published as the number of people who died after being struck by Tasers in the USA reached 334 between 2001 and August 2008.

"Tasers are not the 'non-lethal' weapons they are portrayed to be," said Angela Wright, US researcher at Amnesty International and author of the report. "They can kill and should only be used as a last resort.

"The problem with Tasers is that they are inherently open to abuse, as they are easy to carry and easy to use and can inflict severe pain at the push of a button, without leaving substantial marks."

Amnesty International’s study – which includes information from 98 autopsies – found that 90 per cent of those who died after being struck with a Taser were unarmed and many did not appear to present a serious threat.

Many were subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks – far more than the five-second "standard" cycle – or by more than one officer at a time. Some people were even shocked for failing to comply with police commands after they had been incapacitated by a first shock.

In at least six of the cases where people died, Tasers were used on individuals suffering from medical conditions such as seizures – including a doctor who had crashed his car when he suffered an epileptic seizure. He died after being repeatedly shocked at the side of the highway when, dazed and confused, he failed to comply with an officer's commands.

Police officers also used Tasers on schoolchildren, pregnant women and even an elderly person with dementia.

In March 2008, an 11-year-old girl with a learning disability was shocked with a Taser after she punched a police officer in the face. The officer had been called to the school in Orange County, Florida, after the child had become disturbed, pushing desks and chairs and spitting at staff.

Existing studies – many of them funded by the industry – have found the risk of these weapons to be generally low in healthy adults. However, these studies are limited in scope and have pointed to the need for more understanding of the effects of such devices on vulnerable people, including those under the influence of stimulant drugs or in poor health.

Recent independently-funded animal studies have found that the use of these kinds of electro-shock weapons can cause fatal arrhythmias in pigs, raising further questions about their safety on human subjects. It was also recently reported that nearly ten per cent of 41 Tasers tested in a study commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, delivered significantly more current than the manufacturer said was possible, underscoring the need for independent verification and testing of such devices.   

Although most of the 334 deaths nationwide have been attributed to factors such as drug intoxication, medical examiners and coroners have concluded that Taser shocks caused or contributed to at least 50 of these deaths.

"We are very concerned that electro-shock weapons such as Tasers have been rolled out for general use before rigorous, independent testing of their effects," said Angela Wright.

USA: 'Less than lethal'? The use of stun weapons in US law enforcement

Download:
Index Number: AMR 51/010/2008
Date Published: 16 December 2008
Categories: USA

USA: Stun weapons in law enforcement

Download:
Index Number: AMR 51/129/2008
Date Published: 16 December 2008
Categories: USA

This document is also available in:

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USA: List of deaths following use of stun weapons in US law enforcement: June 2001 to 31 August 2008

Download:
Index Number: AMR 51/146/2008
Date Published: 16 December 2008
Categories: USA

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