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Why the taser-related death toll is rising

The death of 21-year-old Brazilian national, Roberto Laudisio Cruti, on a Sydney street after being tasered by police has ignited questions about the safety and police use of these weapons. Tasers, the…

No independent studies have examined the safety of Tasers on diverse populations.

The death of 21-year-old Brazilian national, Roberto Laudisio Cruti, on a Sydney street after being tasered by police has ignited questions about the safety and police use of these weapons.

Tasers, the brand name for the electro-shock device used by police, deliver currents of 50,000 volts and are designed to incapacitate. They can be used in “drive stun” mode (hand held) or fired on a wire with barbs at a range of around 6.4 meters.

These devices, like capsicum spray, are part of a category of weapons generically known as less-than-lethal weapons, which were incrementally introduced into Australian policing from the mid-1990s.

Tasers were originally trialed by specialist police but are now standard issue for most forces. Victoria Police recently announced it would join the other states and territories and issue officers with Tasers after what it described as a successful 12-month trial.

Why Tasers?

Calls for the introduction of these weapons inevitably come in the wake of fatal police shootings, when they are promoted as a viable alternative to deadly force. Unlike capsicum spray, Tasers don’t carry a risk of secondary exposure and are seen as being more effective at incapacitating.

Critical voices find little space in the emotional climate after a fatal shooting. Including the Sydney death earlier this week, there have been up to five Taser-related deaths in Australia. In two of these cases – one in Western Australia (2007) and one in the Northern Territory (2009) – Aboriginal men died shortly after being Tasered by police.

The other two cases are less proximate. In a 2002 New South Wales case, a man died two weeks after being Tasered. In another 2009 case, a 16-year-old Queensland boy was run over and killed after police drew a Taser and gun, and told him to lie on the road.

Amnesty Internationl records 500 Taser-related deaths internationally. Inevitably, these figures have been disputed. It is rare for Tasers to be officially listed as the cause of death, which is generally put down to conditions such as heart attack or drug toxicity.

Despite this difficulty, the recent Taser-related death should at least open up space for a better-informed discussion.

Health harms

One critical fact that should frame the debate is the reality that Taser International is a multinational company that reaps enormous profit from the expanding police market for its product. The company is happy to market its weapon as an effective and safe alternative to firearms and deadly force, but it’s uncomfortable about open discussion of safety concerns.

When a medical examiner in the United States found a Taser had contributed to the deaths of a number of people, Taser successfully sued and had the finding overturned. Taser-related, -associated or -proximate deaths have become legally safe but somewhat vague terms describe such deaths.

Taser International, like multinational pharmaceutical companies, is influential enough to raise questions about the independence of the research surrounding the safety of its weapons. It’s clear, however, that there have been no independent tests of the safety of these devices carried out on populations as diverse as police are likely to encounter in the field.

We also know that certain people – pregnant women, those under the influence of drugs, and people in poor health, especially with heart problems – are particularly vulnerable when exposed to shocks from Tasers.

Less than lethal?

Concerns about the potential of Tasers to injure or kill would be of little significance if the devices were used as an alternative to firearms. Whatever the safety concerns, Tasers are, without doubt, less lethal than firearms. But all the evidence suggests that less-than-lethal weapons aren’t used by police as alternatives to deadly force, but are used, instead, in situations firearms would not be justified.

In other words, Tasers are used by police as an addition, rather than as an alternative, to firearms and deadly force.

While Australia doesn’t have nationally consistent police guidelines on the use of Tasers, the tenor of all state and territory guidelines is that these weapons are not to be relied on when a person is armed with a weapon. That is the main circumstance where police are justified in resorting to firearms.

Australian and international evidence shows that as these weapons are normalised into everyday policing, they are increasingly used to gain compliance or, sadly, to simply inflict pain. In 2008, police in Western Australia used a Taser thirteen times in drive stun mode on Aboriginal man Kevin Spratt, even though he was unarmed and already in custody.

One danger with the promise of technological quick fixes such as less-than-lethal weapons is that police stop relying on non weapon-based strategies for diffusing conflict and dealing with challenging situations.

If this continues, it’s likely that the Taser-related death toll will increase in Australia, with no reduction in the incidents of fatal shootings.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Must comment carefully here since the good officers involved have legal rights being subject to the usual rigorous investigations of such matters undertaken in Australia. Rights not extended to frightened kids surrounded by cops apparently.

    But from the CCTV footage it appears that tasers are being used as labor-saving devices by our constables who find the idea of actually chasing someone a bit "sweaty", even when they are surrounded by blue uniforms.

    These things should be taken away from…

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    1. Lorna Jarrett

      PhD, science educator and science advocate

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "In 2008, police in Western Australia used a Taser thirteen times in drive stun mode on Aboriginal man Kevin Spratt, even though he was unarmed and already in custody".

      Jude, can you clarify what the outcome was here please - for the officers and for Kevin Spratt?

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    2. Adam Fletcher

      PhD Candidate at Monash University

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Good question Lorna - the WA Corruption and Crime Commission conducted a public inquiry into this episode but there doesn't appear to be a report on their site (http://www.ccc.wa.gov.au/Publications/Reports/Pages/default.aspx) or any news on the inquiry after April last year (see eg: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/breaking-news/west-australian-police-handling-of-kevin-spratt-inadequate-says-prison-boss/story-fn3dxiwe-1226041660684 - NB this story suggests he may have been tasered up to 41 times!). I would be very interested to know if anything came of the inquiry.

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    3. Will Uther

      Artificial Intelligence Researcher at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I agree with much of what you say. I'm not sure that a court case is the answer... because the court cases already happen and they don't appear to be the answer. Taser International has a large vested interest in their weapons not be regarded as lethal. They will hire very persuasive experts to testify to that.

      Unfortunately, being right doesn't always mean that you win in court.

      I also agree that is isn't tasers themselves that are the problem. If we had an accurate characterisation of how deadly they are then we could conduct an accurate risk assessment, and train officers accordingly.

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  2. Will Uther

    Artificial Intelligence Researcher at UNSW Australia

    Defibrillators can save lives. In broad terms they work because an electrical shock can change the beat rhythm of a heart. Tasers also deliver an electrical shock. Even if they don't change the 'subject's' heart rhythm very often, and even if most people can recover a normal rhythm, I don't want one used on me.

    I think 'rarely lethal' is perhaps a better term than 'less than lethal'. Tasers are clearly lethal less often than guns. They are clearly lethal more often than stuffed children's toys.

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  3. Joel Mayes

    Bicycle Mechanic

    Any use of force by arms of government should be subject to strict control.

    Firearms, Tasers and CS spray used by Australian police should have (and in the case of Tasers maybe already do) a camera attached and unedited footage should be made available to the jury in trials or, in case of a police related death or major injury which doesn't result in a trial, be available to the subject of the violence or the family within a short time frame.

    While use of force by police is at times required an arm of the state has a lesser right to privacy and a greater need for accountability then a normal citizen.

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  4. shuningbian

    logged in via Twitter

    Possible typos or mistakes:

    1. The unit for current is amps, not volts. I suspect the author meant "Tasers... deliver electrical shocks at 50,000 volts"

    2. "It is rare for Tasters..." a wild t suddenly appears!

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  5. Reinhard Dekter

    logged in via Facebook

    Look at Jack Bauer. I don't remember him ever using a taser. He always used threat of force and clever tactics to subdue anyone he wanted to. Also, I genuinely don't understand fatal police shootings. The chest is not the only place on the body where you can put a bullet, so why does anyone do that as a way to take down a suspect?

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  6. Phil Shields

    Nursing PhD candidate (Informatics) and ex-ambo

    So Laser is an acronym for Light Amplification Stimulated by the Emission of Radiation, what is Taser an acronym for? These devices belong to the family of low current high voltage arc producers such as insect zappers and piezo-effect gas starters.
    A clinical practitioner would never administer a defibrillator charge to a healthy patient for risk of inducing a fatal heart rhythm. A random Taser jolt contracts muscles thereby incapacitating its victim for the duration the trigger is down. The longer the duration the greater the repolarisation of muscle.

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  7. CH Soames

    Cytogeneticist

    "Rarely lethal" is still lethal. "Never lethal" is the only acceptable risk level for a tool not intended to kill. It's a particularly cruel way to incapacitate someone. Anyone who saw YouTube footage of a distressed and agitated entrant into Canada being 'tased' to death will have been appalled to see the way in which very apparently the man's involuntary spasms and then death throes are treated by security staff as noncompliance, prompting further applications of the Taser.
    The Wikipedia article…

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    1. Will Uther

      Artificial Intelligence Researcher at UNSW Australia

      In reply to CH Soames

      Yes, "rarely lethal" is still sometimes lethal. I don't think "never lethal" is realistic. Even the stuffed toys that I mentioned in my first post can be lethal. Having said that I think Tasers are more lethal than appropriate for their current guidelines for use.

      And 'excited delirium' sounds like bullshit to me. Tasers send pulses of electrical current to make your muscles spasm. I don't want my heart to spasm that way thanks.

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  8. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Will ...

    There's actually two issues running together here - the first is the lethality or otherwise of tasers; the second is the circumstances in which they are being used. They are not unrelated issues.

    I am particularly concerned by the latter aspect of their use.

    Initially tasers were deployed to be used where violence was threatened - where the target" was posing a direct threat to police or the public. The idea was to provide a non-lethal option other than shooting.

    But this…

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