The President isn’t the only person who had a bad weekend. The folks who make Tasers are doing some fancy bobbing and weaving too after three people died as a result of being Tasered by police. Which is why they now call them ‘less lethal’ weapons instead of the old ‘less than lethal’ moniker. Some people just can’t handle being zapped. Like even life-saving medicines, there’s going to be a certain percentage of bad outcomes …
But three in a weekend is getting some attention. Police forces around the country are reviewing how they use Tasers and in what circumstances. For years, they’ve used the “billy club” standard. Any situation in which a cop would previously have used a nightstick is an appropriate time to reach for a Taser when a dude needs to be subdued.
Sure, there may have been other factors involved in Taserees’ deaths.
In some cases, the tasers are only tangentially related or unrelated to the actual cause of death, and that may be the case in the three incidents from this weekend. But recent studies have shown that the weapons can have an outsized impact on people with health problems or who are very high on drugs and in a state of “excited delirium.”
Which presents a problem – isn’t this really the Taser’s raison d’etre? Aren’t belligerent drunks, dusted wackos and other irrationally exuberant types exactly the target demographic for Taser deployment?
It probably won’t surprise you that like McDonalds, corporate jets, hedge funds or anything else that reliably does what it’s designed to do, Tasers have a dedicated group of critics.
Tasers contributed to some 351 US deaths between 2001 and 2008, says Amnesty International, which adds that 90 percent of those tasered were unarmed at the time they were electrocuted. The website Truth Not Tasers claims that 39 people have died in relation to “conducted energy devices (CEDs)” this year in the United States, an average of five per month.
On the other hand, 99.7 percent of people who are tasered suffer no serious injuries, according to a May report from the National Institute of Justice. “The risk of human death due directly or primarily to the electrical effects of CED application has not been conclusively demonstrated,” says the report.
All of which has the people at Taser and police departments reexamining rules of engagement and the Taser models they’re using.
After releasing an advisory in 2009 urging police not to shoot suspects in the chest, Taser International is now marketing the old version of its gun, which allows for only a five second blast of current before officers have to make the decision to hit the suspect again. A newer version of the gun allowed officers to apply continuous current, which the NIJ said in a separate May report has been associated with deaths.
There’s no question that cops unnecessarily light up “uncooperative” citizens now and again. It’s easy to reach for the Taser and rationalize that juicing someone (probably) won’t have any long-term effects. Whereas thumping a guy’s skull – and the resulting trip to the ER for sutures – is gonna leave a mark.
Any tool you give law enforcement will be overused or abused by a certain percentage of officers. But taking a decidedly less lethal tool away from beat cops will only mean more instances when pistols are pulled and fired when something other than deadly force could have done the job. And no one really wants that.