Despite Legal Blow, Taser Use by Police to Expand

NEW YORK - Taser International, the manufacturer of conducted energy weapons known as stun guns or Tasers, is once again implicated in deaths caused in part by deployment of the weapon.

This week, Taser International lost its first product liability claim in the United States. The courts ordered Taser to pay 6.2 million dollars related to the death of a California man who was hit multiple times with the weapon by police. Taser's stock dropped by 11 percent after the courts found that the company had failed to warn the police department that prolonged exposure to the device could increase the risk of cardiac failure. Taser International plans to appeal the decision.

"Certainly, this was a tragedy for the [Robert] Heston family as well as for the officers involved," Doug Klint, vice president and general counsel of TASER International, said in a statement. "We however do not feel that the verdict is supported by the facts including the testimony of the world class experts who testified on our behalf with scientific and medical evidence. Our commitment to continue to defend our life-saving products and to support law enforcement remains unchanged."

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have long argued that most of the deaths associated with Tasers are related to multiple uses or prolonged usage of the weapon on the same person. Since 2001, there have been over 300 deaths that Amnesty has studied where Tasers were involved -- a significant number involved either multiple uses or prolonged usage of the Taser. In over 20 of those cases, coroners have listed Tasers as the contributing factor. In only 10 percent of the cases was the Tasered individual actually carrying a weapon.

Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty International's domestic human rights programme, told IPS, "Science paid for by Taser International should not be trusted. There is an open scientific question on the safety of this device. They are an unknown quantity in many areas and need to be studied further before they are unleashed on the public. We have to start talking about whether force is necessary or not in specific situations, rather than whether a gun or a Taser should be deployed."

Police forces in the United States and around the world have argued in favour of having access to the weapon as a way of reducing gun deaths in confrontations with a suspect.

This week, a 26-year-old Brooklyn man died after being Tasered by the Suffolk County Police Department in New York.

In an interview with IPS, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, "It's an eerie coincidence as New York gets ready to deploy hundreds of Tasers without any hint of training and strict guidelines that would be essential before a man dies in Long Island after having 50,000 volts of electricity shot through him."

"This ought to give the NYPD reason to pause and drive home the critical message that these are potentially lethal weapons and are susceptible to abuse and deadly consequences as guns," she said. "There's a history of abuse all over the country, slick advertising and a tendency to portray Tasers as harmless."

"Tasers can be a less deadly alternative but not if they are deployed en masse, viewed as a safe technology and are misjudged as a harmless alternative -- we could see far more disastrous consequences in the future," she said.

Sgt. Jack Fitzpatrick, a detective and lieutenant in charge of the homicide division of the Suffolk County Police Department, told IPS that an autopsy and toxicology reports will be conducted and that the person in custody was trying to swallow a bag of cocaine. The man died later in hospital. Fitzpatrick said that he didn't have any evidence of excessive use by police related to Tasers nor was he aware of statistics related to income or the ethnicity of people who had been Tasered previously.

The death came a day before thousands of New York police officers were to begin carrying Tasers. The decision to expand Taser use was made at the recommendation of a Rand Corporation report written for the New York Police Department in January.

In a summary of the recommendations related to police training for the NYPD, the Rand report stated, "Analysis of the NYPD firearm-discharge cases and the experience of other police departments suggest that, if the NYPD had a broader deployment of a more robust less-than-lethal standoff weapon, such as TASER devices, it not only might prevent some incidents from escalating to deadly force but might also reduce injuries to officers and citizens alike, as has been the case in other departments."

"While the NYPD does provide pepper spray to all patrol officers and TASER devices to patrol supervisors on a limited basis, the authors recommend that the NYPD implement a pilot program that expands the current availability of TASER devices to all patrol officers in selected precincts," it said.

The report was heavily criticised by the NYCLU for failing to gather public input and for glossing over apparent racial disparities in the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices.

"After police officers fired 50 shots at an unarmed Sean Bell and two other black men, Commissioner [Ray] Kelly promised a careful and independent study of police shooting practices. Today's report, however, completely ignores the issue of race in police shootings, leaving New Yorkers with no answers to many questions raised by the tragic Bell shooting," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU, in a statement at the time.

A spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general was not aware of what the U.N. was currently doing to address the proliferation of Tasers at a global level, but stated that U.N. human rights institutions would be monitoring future developments.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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