Are Tasers Deadly?

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Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times / AP

"Less Than Lethal"?: The Use of Stun Weapons in U.S. Law Enforcment
Amnesty International
127 pages

The Gist:

Remember University of Florida student Andrew Meyer? He's the one who raised a ruckus during a talk by Senator John Kerry before being dragged out by campus officers who proceeded to use a Taser on the young man. "Don't tase me, bro!" It was a cry for help, it was a t-shirt slogan, it was fodder for numerous YouTube video remixes. Funny stuff, right? Well, Amnesty International does not agree. For years, the human rights group has released reports detailing their continuing concerns over the use of stun guns. Their latest again looks at deaths from Taser use, "based on information on reported deaths from June 2001 to 31 August 2008."

Highlight Reel:

On the potential link between Taser use and death: "Since June 2001, more then 330 people in the USA are reported to have died after being struck by police Tasers...Many were subjected to multiple or prolonged shocks, often far more than the standard five-second cycle, despite warnings for several years of the potential health risks of such deployment."

On a July 2008 incident: "Officers from Ozark, Missouri used Tasers 19 times on a 16-year-old boy who was lying next to a highway, injured after apparently falling from an overpass: he was reportedly 'refusing to cooperate' with officers and shouting. His parents said he was unable to comply because of his injuries, which were reported to be a broken back and heel. An investigation by the Missouri State Police and county prosecutor reportedly cleared the officers of any wrongdoing in their use of stun guns on the boy, who they believed was under the influence of LSD at the time."

On Amnesty's primary conclusion: "Governments and law enforcement agencies should suspend the use of [Tasers] pending further studies or limit their use to situations where they are immediately necessary to avoid or reduce the likelihood of recourse to firearms. The arbitrary or abusive use of [Tasers] should be punshed as a criminal offense in law."

The Lowdown:

Amnesty has been issuing these reports for at least four years now, and the death toll from Taser-related incidents continues to rise. It seems no one is listening. The stories contained, though, are quite shocking. One man who crashed his car onto the side of the road after suffering an epileptic seizure was tased repeatedly for struggling with an officer pulling him from his vehicle. Another gentleman was tased when he was mistaken for a drunk driver by the side of the road, when in fact he had simply become hypoglycemic. The list goes on.

As Amnesty puts it, one of the biggest problems concerning Taser use is that threshold for when to use potentially harmful force becomes much lower when a stun gun is optional. Law enforcement officials may begin to believe that since they are not pulling a gun or using a baton, the potential for serious harm is mitigated. Another issue is simple miscommunication — police officers may use Tasers on those suffering from medical or mental conditions when no danger is actually being presented to the officer. The reports weaves a web of unnecessary deaths. There appears to be no definitive way to tell if Tasers caused them all, but the sheer number says something. Little appears to have changed, though. Expect another report — and more reported fatalities — next year.

The Verdict: Skim