Shocking Accusations

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"The conclusion reached after evaluation of these cases is that the Taser in and of itself does not cause death," the report concluded, "although it may have contributed to the death in one case."

In other words, because the Taser's electrical current is modest and the victims were on drugs known to cause cardiac arrest, the Taser is not solely to blame.

Since the report, there have been other cases. In one incident, a Texas corrections officer with a history of heart problems died after receiving two 45,000-volt shocks from a stun shield during a training course. The shield manufacturer insisted the officer's demise was merely an unfortunate coincidence.

"All the evidence we have indicates that there has never been a death caused by one of these devices," Smith says.

In developing its latest model, Taser International performed product tests on anesthetized dogs, trying to induce heart failure using "all sorts of aggressive techniques."

"We wanted to try to fibrillate the dogs because, from a company perspective, if there is a risk we want to know what it is, so then we can disclaim against it," Smith says. "We were not able to do it."

Critics point out that anesthetized animals are very different from terrified humans. The adrenaline and stress from being Tasered, combined with a heart condition and/or destabilizing drugs, could prompt a heart attack even if the electricity itself does not. A 1997 article in the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin concluded, "The Taser has fallen out of use in many departments for various reasons, including the potential for accidental death."

"It's not stress free; it's not risk free," admits Smith. "But we have yet to see in the field a causal relationship with a fatality. Remember, this isn't a blender. This isn't a hair dryer. This isn't something you use casually."

Therefore, if the Taser is used instead of lethal force, it is a humane weapon.


In his book Technology for Nonviolent Struggle, Brian Martin argues that non-lethal weapons should be renamed. His preferred term isn't "less than lethal," but "repression technologies."

"The term 'non-lethal' serves a political function, suggesting that the weapons are more peaceful alternatives to lethal ones," Martin wrote. "In practice, non-lethal weapons typically serve as a supplement to lethal ones, especially in circumstances when deaths would boomerang on the side causing them."

Randall Amster, an Arizona State University adjunct Justice Studies professor, notes that such devices have been a mixed blessing for social activists such as himself.

"It's like rubber bullets, bean bags and tear gas," Amster says. "Since they're 'non-lethal,' police use them every time there's a protest, whereas 20 years ago the police had to seriously consider whether to use force. And with deadly force, they have to prove a very high level of threat. But what sort of threat is required for the use of a Taser?"

Too often, stun weapon users set a level of threat that's far too low.

The Virginia Department of Corrections recently suspended the use of stun guns after reports that guards used them to punish prisoners for infractions such as verbal insolence. In 1986, the Los Angeles Times reported that a California day-care center was shut down after operators allegedly used stun guns to punish children, including infants. And the 1996 Department of Justice report on Maricopa County jails concluded that the availability of stun guns for guards "has contributed to the excessive use of force."

Phoenix criminal defense attorney Nick Hentoff has represented dozens of plaintiffs claiming stun-gun abuse by Maricopa County corrections officers. He says the weapons were used "as a matter of course" to punish "talking back to the guards."

"There's no doubt in my mind the vast majority of the time the stun guns were used in the jails as punishment -- which is illegal -- and not for compliance," Hentoff says. "I have no reason to believe that that has changed."

In 1997, Sheriff Joe Arpaio signed a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice pledging ". . . non-lethal weapons shall not be used solely to gain compliance, such as using an [Electronic Restraint Device] as a come-along tool" and acknowledged that "neither passive nor active resistance are sufficient to justify the use of non-lethal weapons."

In 1998, the Department of Justice certified that Maricopa County jails were in compliance with their agreement. But three weeks ago, Sheriff's spokesman Sergeant Don Rosenberger acknowledged that stun guns are still used to force inmates to comply with orders from guards. And when asked point-blank if the 1997 agreement had changed the way stun guns are used by corrections officers, Rosenberger said: "Nope."

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd