NEW YORK - March 28 - "[It was] the most horrendous experience [of my life]. At one point I just
pretended like I was dead because I thought ... then they would stop." -- Patricia Skelly, who has a mental illness, and was shocked with a
TASER between nine and 15 times while in jail and later in a hospital.
Sixty-one people died in 2005 after being shocked by law enforcement agency TASERs, a 27 percent increase from 2004's tally of 48 deaths, finds an Amnesty International study released today. Including 10 TASER-related deaths through mid-February of this year, at least 152 people have died in the United States since June 2001 after being shocked with the weapons.
"Despite a lack of independent research on TASER safety, police officers are using these weapons as a routine force tool -- rather than as a weapon of last resort," said Dr. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). "These weapons have a record that's growing longer each week -- and it's not a good one. The increasingly frequent TASER-related deaths underscore the need for an independent, rigorous and impartial inquiry into their use."
Amnesty International's continued research, including a review of TASER-related deaths since the organization's November 2004 report, reveals that most who died were unarmed men who did not appear to pose a threat of death or serious injury at the time of being electro-shocked. In some law-enforcement agencies, the use of TASERs is allowed if a person simply does not comply with an officer's demands. In some cases the alleged abuse amounted to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The 51-page Amnesty International study finds that in seven cases -- including three in 2005 -- the medical examiner or coroner performing the autopsy has listed TASERs as a primary cause of death and has classified the death as a homicide. In an additional 16 of the 152 cases the medical examiner or coroner has cited TASERs as a contributory factor in death. Amnesty International believes there may be more cases in which TASERs cannot be ruled out as a possible factor in the deaths. Recent studies have cited the need for more research into potential adverse effects from TASER shocks on people who are agitated, under the influence of drugs or subjected to multiple or prolonged shocks.
Most of those who died had pre-existing medical conditions, were under the influence of drugs or medication, and/or were subjected to multiple or prolonged electro-shocks. Among TASER-related deaths in the past year, for example, 40 were shocked more than three times and one person as many as 19 times. A majority of those who died went into cardiac or respiratory arrest at the scene.
Amnesty International is particularly concerned that vulnerable groups such as children, the disabled, pregnant women and people with mental illnesses are also being subjected to electric shocks from TASERs. The organization continues to receive reports of individuals being TASERed while already handcuffed or having been placed in mechanical restraints. It has also received reports of TASERs being used to control unruly or uncooperative schoolchildren.
Studies conducted over the last year have not met the organization's criteria for an independent, impartial and comprehensive study. These studies have been limited in scope and methodology and have relied mostly on data provided by a primary manufacturer of the weapons -- Taser International -- and police departments themselves. None of the studies has included an analysis of the deaths listed in Amnesty International's reports on TASER use in the United States.
"One-hundred fifty-two deaths tied to a 'less lethal' weapon should raise a red flag," said Dalia Hashad, Director of the Domestic Human Rights Program at AIUSA. "If a dictator mandated the
abuse of these weapons, the United States government would be quick to call it torture. But is it any less painful when an American is shocked time and again? U.S. agencies should be concerned about using a tool with a record like this one."
Amnesty International calls on police departments to suspend purchase and use of TASERs pending the outcome of independent safety research. Where law enforcement agencies refuse to suspend their use, Amnesty recommends that TASERs be employed only in situations in which the only alternative is the use of deadly force.
TASERs are powerful electro-shock weapons in use in more than 7,000 of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. They are designed to incapacitate by conducting 50,000 volts of electricity into an individual's body. The electrical pulses induce skeletal muscle spasms that immobilize and incapacitate the individual, causing them to fall to the ground.