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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There are no national standards on police use of Tasers and practice varies between departments, and even (as shown above) within states. However, it appears that many of the situations described above are not confined to a few departments but reflect a wider pattern across the USA. Reports suggest that Tasers are commonly used to secure compliance in routine arrest and non-life-threatening situations.

A statistical analysis of 2,050 Taser field applications across the USA, produced for Taser International in November 2002, for example, showed that in 79.6% of cases the suspects were unarmed; of the other cases, 15.6% had an "edged weapon" and 4.8% a firearm; in 4.9% of cases the "suspect weapon" category was "blunt force". An analysis of the "suspect force level" in which a Taser was deployed gave the most common category (37% of cases) as "verbal non-compliance". This was followed by "active aggression" in 32.6% of cases; "defensive resistance" in 27.7% of cases and "deadly assault" in only 2.7% of cases.(56)

The survey also provided a "call-out" analysis (the type of incident to which police had responded) which listed 29.8% of cases as "violent" and 27.5% as "resisting arrest". The other categories were "suicide"14.7%; "civil disturbance"11.9%; "Barricade" 5.8%; "serve warrant" 5.6% and "officer assault" 4.7%(57)

1. 5 Children

Several of the cases described above involve use of electro-shock weapons against unarmed children, including use of a Taser against a child in school and another in a public library. Amnesty International considers that the use of electro-shock weapons against recalcitrant or disturbed children is an inherently excessive and cruel use of force, contrary to international standards recognizing that children are entitled to special care and protection.(58)

While no national statistics are available, such cases may not be isolated. Amnesty International has received reports of Tasers being used by police in schools to break up fights or when dealing with other incidents. In some cases, police reportedly fired their Tasers when juveniles walked or ran away from officers. A review of cases published by a California newspaper found that few police agencies in Northern California had any minimum age restrictions on use of Tasers, a situation that may be similar in other jurisdictions.(59)

According to the field study statistics cited above, 7.69% or 148 of the 2050 Taser applications involved people aged from 12 to 18, although no breakdown was given of children under 18. A later analysis of 2,690 Taser field uses shows 183 applications (7.4%) involving children aged 10 to 18.(60) Taser International has informed Amnesty International that it has records of four children under ten who were subjected to police Tasers: one seven-year-old, one eight-year-old and two nine-year-olds, two of whom it says were armed with knives and one with a machete. However, there may be other cases.(61)
Most of the children whose cases are described above were involved in relatively minor incidents for which other measures could have been taken to de-escalate the situation. While one child (the schoolgirl tasered in Putnam County, Florida) had a reported history of disturbed or assaultive behaviour, children suffering from mental health or behavioural problems are more appropriately dealt with by health professionals trained in control, restraint and other techniques to deal with potentially violent situations. Rather than helping to control a child's behaviour, the infliction of electro-shocks is liable to increase mental stress and suffering as well as causing physical pain.