Shocking Accusations

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Phoenix police have about 60 Tasers distributed among 2,671 officers. The weapon is primarily used by members of the Special Assignments Unit (a SWAT-team equivalent), and the Phoenix city council has recently authorized the purchase of an additional 173 Tasers.

"We've had some failures, but they've been effective in most of the incidents in which they have been used," says Phoenix police spokesperson Randy Force, who notes the Taser is fired when "somebody needs to be forcibly subdued but where deadly force would not be necessary."

So the weapon is an effective tool, a device that gives officers and citizens more of a sliding scale of defense for reality's sliding scale of conflict. Stunning the bad guys, just like in Star Trek, with minimal-to-zero biological damage.

Which is wonderful.

Except for one problem: U.S.-made stun weapons are also used by torturers worldwide to inflict some of the most horrific pain imaginable.

The human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International has been tracking the growing popularity of stun weapons. In February, Amnesty released its findings in a report titled "Stopping the Torture Trade."

The report claims that about 80 U.S. companies manufactured or sold stun devices in the 1990s -- more than any other country in the world (Taiwan was No. 2, with only 17 companies). Under pressure from Amnesty, the Department of Commerce recently began requiring companies to obtain export licenses to send electroshock weapons overseas. But Amnesty says the export controls remain woefully inadequate, that shipments arriving in democratic countries are resold to nations notorious for human-rights violations.

"Electroshock devices have been used against children, the elderly, pregnant women and the mentally ill," reads the report. "Also, torturers often appear to prefer using electroshock weapons because they can inflict great pain without leaving permanent marks on the victim's body."

One victim from China said prison guards repeatedly shocked him with stun batons, including in his mouth and on his genitals, and the pain was so intense he was forced to wear a metal helmet. "The interrogators used this helmet to prevent fatalities," explains the report. "Some prisoners, unable to bear the pain of torture, would try to kill themselves by bashing their heads against the walls."

The report calls for a suspension of the sale of stun guns and Tasers until tougher export controls are enacted and a study from an independent research institution (such as a major university) determines their safety.

"We're putting something in [torturers'] hands that is perfectly designed for their purposes," says Alistair Hodgett, spokesperson for Amnesty International.

In the latest report, Amnesty cited Taser International, which claims to supply 90 percent of the national Taser market.

Smith says the majority of his customers are domestic law enforcement departments. He claims Amnesty is unfairly lumping in Tasers (which are often carried by police tactical divisions and patrol officers) with stun guns and stun batons (which are less expensive, and more likely to be carried by corrections officers).

And Smith may be right.

There are no incidents of torture-by-Taser mentioned in the Amnesty report. New Times was also unable to find any examples of Taser abuse in news archive searches. Hodgett says Amnesty's concern is that Tasers can be used for torture since the technology is essentially the same as other electroshock weapons.

Smith says misuse of any stun weapon is tragic, but he is convinced of the inherent positive impact of his product when used for conflict resolution -- the lesser of several alternative evils.

"[Amnesty has] gotten so focused on what could go wrong that they're not being a constructive voice in coming up with creative solutions," Smith says. "I don't care how good of a negotiator you are, sometimes verbal tactics are not going to get the job done."

The Taser can demonstrate the elasticity of time to a marvelous degree.

My Taser demonstration, for instance, seemed to last quite a while. Yet I know it was only one second, because only a second's worth of electric popping was picked up on my nearby cassette recorder. My involuntary yell was also captured.

The Taser International Web site, www.taser.com, describes the experience of being Tasered as having the body's nerve signals washed out in a "sea of white noise." The site says the experience is "not painful per se."

This is not true. Though the sensation varies from person to person, a study of Tasers in the Journal of Forensic Sciences reported that stun weaponry's "freeze-level" shocks are "painful, frightening and hard to endure."

What is the shock comparable to? It is difficult to figure. The shocks generated by stun weapons do not compare to conventional electric sources because the weapons produce a unique low amperage/high voltage pulsing charge that is unlike, say, a shock from an electrical wall socket or a car battery.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd