USA: Safety of Tasers Questioned as Death Toll Hits 334-mark

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USA: Safety of Tasers Questioned as Death Toll Hits 334-mark

WASHINGTON - Industry claims that Taser stun guns are
safe and non-lethal do not stand up to scrutiny, said Amnesty
International today as it 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," said
Angela Wright.

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 Corportation, 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.

Note to editors
Taser is the commercial name for the most widely used "Conducted Energy
Devices" (CEDs) currently deployed in US law enforcement although other
products are also on the market. They work by delivering a high
voltage, low current, electrical charge designed to disrupt the central
nervous system and cause uncontrolled muscle contractions, temporarily
incapacitating the subject.

After reviewing 98 autopsy reports and other materials, Amnesty International found that:

  • Many victims were subjected to multiple or prolonged shocks, often
    far more than the standard five-second cycle, despite long-standing
    warnings of the potential health risks of such use;
  • In most cases, the deceased are reported to have gone into cardio-respiratory arrest at the scene, shortly after being shocked.
  • In some cases there was no indication that the deceased had taken
    drugs or had underlying health problems, and they collapsed shortly
    after being shocked, raising further concern about the role of the CED;
  • In many cases additional methods of restraint were applied,
    including methods known to impair breathing or restrict the flow of
    blood to the brain, creating a risk of death from asphyxia.

Most departments permit CEDs to be used at a level of threat well
below that at which officers would be authorized to use lethal force;
some even place them at the level of "hands-on" force or just above
"verbal commands".

The manufacturers of CEDs and the agencies deploying them maintain
that they are safer than many conventional weapons in controlling
dangerous or combative people and that CEDs have saved lives by
avoiding the resort by officers to lethal force.

More than 30 individuals died after being shocked in jails, where
CEDs are also widely used, or in the booking area of police stations.

Most deaths occurred in California and Florida -- 55 and 52
respectively. Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada, had the highest
number of deaths of any city, with five deaths reported between 2001
and 31 August 2008.

In 37 of the 98 autopsy reports plus the two inquest transcripts
reviewed by Amnesty International, medical examiners listed the use of
a CED as a cause or contributory factor in the death. Medical examiners
or coroners reportedly made similar findings in at least 13 other cases
where Amnesty International did not have the autopsy reports.

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Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights for all. Our supporters are outraged by human rights abuses but inspired by hope for a better world - so we work to improve human rights through campaigning and international solidarity. We have more than 2.2 million members and subscribers in more than 150 countries and regions and we coordinate this support to act for justice on a wide range of issues.

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