The launch of a new electroshock device to be sold to the public--just days after the deaths of two men who were stunned by police officers using similar products--has brought new calls for a moratorium on the sale and use of such instruments.
The new Taser C2 looks like a high-tech personal shaver and comes in several colors like an iPod--including electric blue. And it's designed to fit in a purse, to bring law-enforcement technology to consumers.
But that is precisely what worries groups like Amnesty International, which has renewed its call to suspend the use of Tasers by law enforcement--and the untrained public--until there are further independent studies of their safety.
On Tuesday, a police officer in Wilson, North Carolina, used a Taser on a 15-year-old high school student to break up a fight. The student was not injured, according to news reports. But last weekend, two men died in separate incidents after receiving Taser shocks by police.
"This is not a weapon to have on the streets," says Delia Hashad, director of the USA Program for Amnesty International, who notes that outside the United States and the UK, the single largest use of Tasers is for torture.
"People are led to believe that you take it out when you want to disable someone, and it's a good quick, harmless method," says Hashad. "But we still don't have independent comprehensive medical research on what a Taser weapon does to the human body."
Tasers fire "darts" connected to the device that send an electrical current through the area between the darts, temporarily paralyzing the muscles. In most cases, the action results in minor injuries, if any, such as cuts or bruises.
But Amnesty International USA is tracking what it says is a growing number of post-Taser deaths. News and police reports indicate there have been over 220 such deaths since July 2001, according to Hashad, who calls that a conservative figure.
Steve Tuttle of Taser International disputes this number. "We have been cleared in over 90 percent of the cases they [Amnesty International] refer to, and some are still pending."
Tuttle cites the company's numerous studies and feedback from police departments--Phoenix, Arizona and Orange County, Florida, to name two--showing Tasers have significantly decreased police shootings and injuries to officers and civilians alike.
But Amnesty International's Hashad is not convinced. "We're not saying it has not saved lives. What we're saying is that this weapon hasn't been adequately tested, and doesn't seem to be operating as the manufacturer claims it is."
There is some indication that people with very low body mass, certain mental illnesses, or pre-existing heart conditions--and those on certain prescription or illegal drugs--may react differently to Taser shocks.
Lorie Fridell, associate professor of Criminology at the University of South Florida, has studied police use of Tasers. "We try to identify which of the in-custody deaths occurred because of the Taser specifically, [but] we don't have all the information we need to identify those," she says.
Much of the existing research on Taser safety has focused on a "standard activation"--50,000 volts, 0.07 joules administered for five seconds. (By way of comparison: a cardiac defibrillator operates at about 360 joules per pulse, says Steve Tuttle of Taser International.)
This single, quick jolt may not reflect real-world use, where tense situations often lead to repeated activations or longer durations.
In addition, some of the studies--including a recent University of Wisconsin study funded by the Department of Justice--have been criticized for their connections to the manufacturer.
"The overwhelming majority of people who are Tased are fine. There is some group that we can't measure that are not fine," Fridell says. "The legitimate question is, will getting rid of Tasers save lives or cause more lives to be lost? I truly believe Tasers save lives."
Instead, Fridell says, police departments should establish stronger policies and more consistent training for officers on the appropriate use of Tasers.
Melanie Trimble, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Capital Region Chapter, agrees. She worries that the prevailing sense that Tasers are harmless may lead to misuse and abuse--particularly when the person on the other end of the dart is younger than 17, pregnant, or under the influence of drugs.
"Their behavior has to be significant and imminently dangerous to themselves or others before police ought to use Tasers," says Trimble.
There are no national standards for training; each police agency defines its own training requirements in accordance with the laws in that state.
As a result, police officers are instructed to use Tasers in different situations in different locales. Some agencies, like the Wilson, North Carolina police department that used the device on the 15-year-old student, call it a "low use of force"; others reserve it for more serious situations.
"Hopefully, the police department will put together their own format to make it their own, but for the most part the training is still being given by a representative from Taser," says Albert Arena, project manager in the Research Center Directorate at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The association is among those that have issued training and use guidelines for departments.
Some states, like Florida, are beginning to address legislation of standards for procedures and training.
More concrete information on the safety of Tasers may also be on the horizon. A National Institute of Justice study is reviewing some 100 deaths after Taser use--including cases where medical examiners ruled that the Taser was not the cause of death. Preliminary results are expected in October.
"People don't think of America as a place where we put these types of weapons in the hands of police officers before we figure out what they do," says Amnesty International's Hashad. "Right now we're just learning from the news reports of deaths--and that doesn't make any sense."
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