Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International's concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers
Introduction and summary
"I asked Borden to lift up his foot to remove the shorts, but he was being combative and refused. I dry stunned Borden in the lower abdominal area … We got Borden into the booking area. Borden was still combative and uncooperative. I dried [sic] stunned Borden in the buttocks area…" After the final shock, the officer "noticed that Borden was no longer responsive and his face was discoloured." (extract from officer's statement on James Borden, a mentally disturbed man being booked into an Indiana jail.)(1)
James Borden was arrested in a disoriented state in November 2003 and died shortly after the administration of the last of six electro-shocks, delivered while his hands were reportedly cuffed behind his back. The medical examiner released a statement listing cause of death as a heart attack, drug intoxication and electrical shock. James Borden is one of thousands of individuals shocked with stun devices by US law enforcement agents each year as a growing number of agencies move to adopt such weapons.
More than 5,000 US law enforcement agencies are currently deploying Tasers, dart-firing electro-shock weapons designed to cause instant incapacitation by delivering a 50,000 volt shock. Tasers are hand-held electronic stun guns which fire two barbed darts up to a distance of 21 feet, which remain attached to the gun by wires. The fish-hook like darts are designed to penetrate up to two inches of the target's clothing or skin and deliver a high-voltage, low amperage, electro-shock along insulated copper wires. Although they were first introduced in the 1970s, the take-up rate for Tasers has increased enormously in recent years, with the marketing of powerful "new generation" models such as the M26 Advanced Taser and the Taser X26. Both fire darts which strike the subject from a distance or, as in James Borden's case, can be applied directly to the skin as a stun gun.
The manufacturers and law enforcement agencies deploying Tasers maintain that they are a safer alternative to many conventional weapons in controlling dangerous or combative individuals. Some police departments claim that injuries to officers and suspects, as well as deaths from police firearms, have fallen since their introduction.
Amnesty International acknowledges the importance of developing non-lethal or "less than lethal" force options to decrease the risk of death or injury inherent in the use of firearms or other impact weapons such as batons. However, the use of stun technology in law enforcement raises a number of concerns for the protection of human rights. Portable and easy to use, with the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button without leaving substantial marks, electro-shock weapons are particularly open to abuse by unscrupulous officials, as the organization has documented in numerous cases around the world.(2)
Although US law enforcement agencies stress that training and in-built product safeguards (such as chips which can record the time and date of each Taser firing) minimize the potential for abuse, Amnesty International believes that these safeguards do not go far enough. There have been disturbing reports of inappropriate or abusive use of Tasers in various US jurisdictions, sometimes involving repeated cycles of electro-shocks.