One of the more controversial weapons in the law-enforcement arsenal - especially as they relate to the excessive use of force - Tasers were first employed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1974. These pistol-shaped weapons use compressed nitrogen gas to fire twin darts up to 21 feet that can penetrate 2 inches of clothing. Electricity is then conducted through the wires that connect the darts to the gun.
The latest generation of Tasers can deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity, significantly more than the original weapons used in the 1970s and 1980s. These high-powered Tasers are designed to incapacitate dangerous, combative and/or high-risk subjects who may be impervious to other less-lethal means, regardless of their pain tolerance, drug and/or alcohol use, or body size.
Amnesty International reports that from 2001 through January 2012, at least 500 people in this country have died after being struck by Tasers, either during their arrest or while in jail. The largest numbers of deaths were in California (92), Florida (65) and Texas (37). Susan Lee of AI stated that, "of the hundreds who have died following police use of Tasers in the United States, dozens and possibly scores of deaths can be traced to unnecessary force being used." Police have used Tasers on schoolchildren, pregnant women, elderly people with dementia, the mentally ill and individuals suffering from medical conditions such as epileptic seizures. In a 2006 report that examined 152 Taser-related deaths, AI concluded:
A police-issue Taser X26
(Photo obtained via Wikimedia Commons)
-Most of those who died in custody were unarmed and were not posing a serious threat to police officers, members of the public or themselves
-Those who died were generally subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks
-Taser use was often accompanied by the utilization of restraints and/or chemical incapacitating sprays
-Many of those who died had underlying health problems such as heart conditions or mental illness, or were under the influence of drugs
-Most of the individuals who died went into cardiac or respiratory arrest at the scene.* Most of those who died were shocked more than once, and 92 were subject to between three and 21 shocks
Rather than implemented in limited situations to avoid using lethal force (firearms), many police departments are using Tasers as "routine force options." In a 2004 report, AI concluded that most of those who died via Tasers were unarmed men. While they often displayed bizarre or disruptive behavior, these individuals "did not appear to present a serious threat to the lives or safety of others."
Police have used Tasers on unarmed people who fail to comply immediately with their instructions, who struggle while handcuffed or who attempt to flee minor incidents. AI reports that in some departments, police use Tasers indiscriminately with little fear of being reprimanded or sanctioned for their actions.
Wanted for drug possession, Baron Pikes started to run after a Winnfield, La., police officer saw him walking down the street. Quickly apprehended by the officer, Pikes was handcuffed behind his back as he lay on the ground. When he failed to obey a command to get in the squad car, Pikes was Tasered six times. The young man was shocked twice while in the police vehicle and two more times as he was pulled from the car. Parrish Coroner Randolf Williams stated it was possible that Pikes was already dead when he received the final Taser shocks. Williams reported that Pikes was a healthy adult with no sign of drug use, noting, "This case may be the most unnecessary death I have ever had to investigate." In August 2008, police officer Scott Nugent was charged with manslaughter and "malfeasance of duty" in the death of Baron Pikes. In October 2010, a jury acquitted Nugent of all charges against him.
In Seattle, Wash., seven-months-pregnant Malaika Brooks was taking her 11-year-old son to school when she was pulled over by police for driving 32 miles per hour in a 20 mph school zone. Under Seattle law, traffic violators are required to sign traffic tickets at the scene, and non-compliance is a violation of the law. Brooks told the officer she did not believe that she was speeding and considered signing the ticket an admission of guilt. Two more officers soon arrived, and Brooks was told that if she did not sign the ticket she would be arrested and taken to jail. At this time, one of the officers produced a Taser. Brooks told the officer she did not know what a Taser was, stating, "I have to go to the bathroom. I'm pregnant; I'm less than 60 days from having my baby." The officers attempted to remove Brooks from the car, but she held on tightly to the steering wheel. Brooks was then Tasered three times in 42 seconds, first to her thigh, then her arm and finally her neck.
Police in Scotland Neck, N.C., received a report that a man had fallen off of a bicycle and may have injured himself. A patrol officer saw 61-year-old Roger Anthony riding down the street and told him to stop. When Anthony did not answer, the officer turned on his car lights and siren. With still no reaction from Anthony, the officer got out of his car and told him once again to stop. Not responding to his command a second time, the officer Tasered Anthony, who fell off of his bicycle. At the hospital, Anthony was pronounced "brain dead" and died the next day. Family members said that Anthony was hearing impaired and suffered from seizures. Speaking of Roger Anthony's death, Scotland Neck Mayor James Mills called for an investigation, noting, "The best we've been able to determine is that he (Anthony) offered no threat."
The tragic irony of police using Tasers is that a supposedly less lethal weapon (than firearms) implemented to reduce the number of fatalities resulting from the police use of force has led to the unnecessary and questionable deaths of so many people. There are at least three reasons for this:
1. Significantly increasing the shock power of Tasers means they are more likely to be fatal to the very young, the elderly and those individuals already physically weak because of injury or sickness.
2. Individuals are often shocked multiple times in a matter of seconds or minutes. As a consequence of numerous, quick succession jolts of electricity, officers are not able to monitor the cumulative impact of powerful shocks that can result in death.
3. Tasers are used as a mechanism to control individuals who do not respond to police commands. While it is highly unlikely that police officers in Seattle would have shot or used their batons on a pregnant woman who refused to exit a vehicle, they did not hesitate to shock her. My guess is that Tasers are often used in "contempt of cop" situations - that is, when officers believe they are being defied, disrespected or ignored. In these scenarios, the use of Tasers is police-administered "street justice."
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
"Amnesty International's Continuing Concern About Taser Use" (2006) Amnesty International, www.amnestyinternational.org
"Amnesty International Releases Its Briefing on Tasers. Submitted to U.S. Justice Department" (October 2007) Amnesty International, www.amnestyusa.org
Foster, W. (Oct. 29, 2010) "Ex-Officer Not Guilty in Taser Death Case," Commonwealth for a Free Moral Society, commonwealthfreemoralsociety.wordpress.com
"North Carolina Probes Death of Bicyclist by Police" (Nov. 13, 2011) CBS News, www.cbsnews.com
Richey, W. (May 29, 2012) "Was Taser use on a pregnant woman excessive force? Supreme Court Declines Case" Christian Science Monitor, www.csmonitor.com
"Stun Weapons in Law-Enforcement" (2008) Amnesty International, amnesty.org
Trimel, S. (Feb. 25, 2012) "Amnesty International Urges Stricter Limits on Police Taser Use as U.S. Toll Reaches 500" Amnesty International, www.amnestyusa.org