Monday, October 08, 2007

Tasers are safe, cops say

In a study funded by Abu Gonzales's U.S. Justice Department ("We Love Torture!"), they found that tasers are safe. Yessiree, our modern-day version of ye olde classic, the cattle prod (favorite instrument of torture used by third world dictators, like, everwhere) is perfectly safe in 99.7% of cases, err, well, not exactly, but in 99.7% of cases the suspect didn't have to be hospitalized for any injuries. The other .3% of cases required hospitalization of the subject and two of the subjects (out of 1,000 total) died, but it was never because of the taser, it was because of, uhm, ah, err, something else. Nothing to do with being shocked multiple times by 50,000 volts of electricity, they died of, uhm, other things, maybe some new fictional disease "excited delirium" (a disease that did not exist until coroners needed some handy way to explain deaths in police custody, and which has never been diagnosed as a cause of any death outside of police custody). Nothing to see here, move along!

Meanwhile, Amnesty International reports that they have documented over 230 deaths occurring within hours of taser use, often right at the scene. Their documentation is primarily from media reports, and most cases of death after tasering do not make it into any newspaper, so it's likely that the problem is far worse than even Amnesty International claims. In the above study, two people out of approximately 1,000 died after being stunned by a taser (but it wasn't the taser that killed them, it was, err, some non-existent disease that's only diagnosed for people who die in police custody, yessiree!).

What this means, if the cops' study is correct (that .23% of people die after being stunned with tasers) is that over 115,000 people apparently have gotten stunned with tasers over that period of time. Which is not surprising, when you find out that out of the total U.S. population of 300 million, over 7 million are either in jail or on probation at any given time. That's over 2% of the U.S. population. The U.S. has 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's incarcerated people in the world's largest gulag, albeit a gulag which is so widely distributed amongst county jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries that it cannot be easily pointed at. Land of the free my ass! Furthermore, most of those stunned by tasers were not in any way endangering themselves or others, the taser was not being used as a substitute for deadly force, the taser was being used as a substitute for baton strikes or compliance holds. In most applications of tasers, the suspects were stunned for "non-compliance" i.e. pissing off a police officer by smart-mouthing him or by not immediately doing what the officer ordered him to do or by wiggling after being cuffed. In most of these cases there was no immediate danger, just impatience on the part of a police officer who's in a hurry and wishes to assert his authority when someone isn't obeying his orders.

This use of tasers as "compliance tools" is widespread amongst police officers in departments which have issued the devices to all on-duty officers, and is encouraged by the Taser Corporation. Like third world torturers, police officers like the fact that using what is essentially a cattle prod allows them to inflict excruciating pain without leaving bruises or other marks that could lead to a police brutality or torture complaint. That's why third world torturers love cattle prods so much, because since they leave no mark it's hard for the victim of torture to prove his case. Application of a taser is far more painful than a baton strike to the kidneys or behind the knee, is far more likely to cause death than taking a suspect down to the ground and jacking him up on his stomach while someone holds down his legs and butt and then waiting for the suspect to calm down (which, granted, can take a while -- I've had someone on the ground for almost 20 minutes before he realized we weren't going anywhere until he agreed to walk calmly to where he needed to be). But use of the taser is far less likely to leave scratches or pavement rash on the suspect, thus it has become the first choice of police officers after attempts to talk down a suspect fail -- or even before an attempt to talk down a suspect is made.

-- Badtux the Electric Penguin


  1. Thanks, Badtux. I'm not personally in law enforcement as you are, but I've followed the Taser issue for a while. I've blogged for something over a year now that Tasers are potentially deadly, and should be used as an alternative to deadly force... based on the judgment of the officer involved, of course, but only when s/he would be willing to defend the use of deadly force before a review.

    Personally, the things scare hell out of me, mostly because people seem to think they're some sort of "magic bullet" (pardon the expression). They aren't. Some countries, e.g., the UK, seem to be realizing that and adjusting their rules for use accordingly. Now we just have to persuade the good ol' U.S. of A...

  2. Hi, Steve. I'm not in law enforcement and never have been, the situation where I was occasionally called to participate in restraining someone was in a special school for "problem" kids. The main advantage we had was that the kids weren't armed so we didn't need to worry about deadly force. But we had pretty much the same problems with getting compliance that a cop on the streets does, but pain compliance was strictly forbidden. We had to use other methods, mostly the power of boring. We did have an escalation scale we used similar to law enforcement, we just didn't escalate as far.

    That said, cops also have to deal with drunks and druggies and such and in some cases a taser may be necessary to protect someone's life, so I wouldn't say tasers should be banned for everything except situations calling for deadly force. For example, let's say you got a drunk in the parking lot of a bar, and he's hitting and fighting other people so you're going to arrest him, and he decides he's had enough so he hauls ass for a busy street that has semi-trucks going down it at 50mph and it seems likely he's going to run into the street and get hit and killed. If he's running too fast for you to catch him before he hits the street, a taser may take him down before he gets his sorry butt killed. But then again, the alternative there is that the perp gets dead. So worst outcome from tasering him is the same outcome as if you don't taser him.

    Anyhow, the taser is a good tool, but it's just being misused WAY too much because of the fact that it leaves no marks and thus cops are using it instead of less deadly techniques. This misuse is actually encouraged by the Taser Corporation, because it helps them sell tasers. In my opinion this is wrong and tasers should be moved up the force escalation scale so that they're right below deadly force, and used as a last resort to deadly force, not as a substitute for less drastic actions.


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