USA: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International's concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers

November 29, 2004

USA: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International's concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers

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  • a 14-year-old boy who had allegedly broken a window and tried to run away;
  • a 50-year-old man who refused to give police his date of birth during a disturbance at a picnic;
  • a woman jolted at least five times with a Taser as an officer held her down.

In most or all of the cases cited above, the use of force was found to be in accordance with departmental policies. In the case of the 14-year-old tasered in the classroom, the Putnam County Sheriff's Office informed Amnesty International that "use of the Taser in this instance is in accordance with agency policy", noting that the girl in question, who weighed 221 1bs (100 Kg), had a history of assaultive behaviour at the school. While recognizing the challenges posed by such behaviour, Amnesty International remains concerned at the use of an electro-shock weapon against a disturbed, unarmed teenager.

In July 2004, it was announced that eleven police agencies in Orange County, Florida, had agreed to restrict their use of Tasers following a year-long review which suggested that some officers were too quick to resort to their weapons. Before the restrictions were imposed, officers were permitted to shock anyone who prevented an officer "from taking lawful action", including people engaged in "passive resistance": those who disobeyed an officer's verbal command without engaging in any threat or act of physical harm. The new rules allow officers to stun only people who show "active resistance". However, Tasers can still be used well below the "lethal force" level, including under such broad circumstances as "preventing an officer from making an arrest". Some US police agencies may continue to allow Tasers to be used at the level of "passive resistance". Records from the Orange County Sheriff's Department, Florida (the largest county police agency), showed that the agency used Tasers in 180 cases in which individuals were engaged in "passive resistance" from 2001 to October 2003, although this policy was reportedly under review.(43)

A study by the Denver Post in May 2004 found that the Denver Police Department, Colorado, commonly used Tasers against people who refused to submit to handcuffing or who walked or ran away from police officers. In 90% of cases the subjects were unarmed, and most were cited for minor offences. While in some cases Tasers had been used to stop dangerous suspects and disarm the suicidal, they were more often used to force people to obey police commands and to shortcut confrontations. The study found that officers had tasered at least sixteen people who were already handcuffed, and sixteen juveniles (details of the latter cases were unavailable due to their age).(44) Most such usage was found to be within the official policy.

The Denver Police Department is one of more than 100 law enforcement agencies in Colorado to have adopted Tasers and, by August 2003, had purchased enough X26 and M26 Tasers to have one in every patrol car.

The Denver Post study was prompted by concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado about inappropriate and abusive use of Tasers by a number of local police and county agencies, including two cases where suspects died.(45) In several cases police subjected people to repeated shocks, sometimes while they were already restrained; other cases included people abused in local jails (see below). In many instances the accounts were corroborated by police reports. One of the cases taken up by the ACLU was that of a man who died after being tasered at least five times by Glendale police officers as he lay supine on the floor of his room in a drug-induced stupor (see Glenn Leyba case, chapter 2 below). Other cases involving the Glendale Police Department included the following: