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 is also evidence to suggest that, far from being used to avoid lethal force, many US police agencies are deploying Tasers as a routine force option to subdue non-compliant or disturbed individuals who do not pose a serious danger to themselves or others. In some departments, Tasers have become the most prevalent force tool. They have been used against unruly schoolchildren; unarmed mentally disturbed or intoxicated individuals; suspects fleeing minor crime scenes and people who argue with police or fail to comply immediately with a command. Cases described in this report include the stunning of a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Florida, following a dispute on a bus, and a 13- year-old girl in Arizona, who threw a book in a public library.

In many such instances, the use of electro-shock weapons appears to have violated international standards prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as standards set out under the United Nations (UN) Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These require that force should be used as a last resort and that officers must apply only the minimum amount of force necessary to obtain a lawful objective. They also provide that all use of force must be proportionate to the threat posed as well as designed to avoid unwarranted pain or injury.

International standards encourage the development of non-lethal incapacitating weapons for law enforcement "for use in appropriate situations, with a view to increasingly restraining the application of means capable of causing death or injury to persons" but state that such weapons must be "carefully evaluated" and their use "carefully controlled".(3) Amnesty International believes that this standard has not been met with regard to Tasers, despite their increasing use across the country.

Amnesty International is further concerned by the growing number of fatalities involving police Tasers. Since 2001, more than 70 people are reported to have died in the USA and Canada after being struck by M26 or X26 Tasers, with the numbers rising each year. While coroners have tended to attribute such deaths to other factors (such as drug intoxication), some medical experts question whether the Taser shocks may exacerbate a risk of heart failure in cases where persons are agitated, under the influence of drugs, or have underlying health problems such as heart disease. In at least five recent cases, coroners have found the Taser directly contributed to the death, along with other factors such as drug abuse and heart disease. As discussed below, the death toll heightens Amnesty International's concern about the safety of stun weapons and the lack of rigorous, independent testing as to their medical effects.

This report includes a review by Amnesty International of information on 74 Taser-involved deaths, based on a range of sources, including autopsy reports in 21 cases. Most of those who died were unarmed men who, while displaying disturbed or combative behaviour, did not appear to present a serious threat to the lives or safety of others. Yet many were subjected to extreme levels of force, including repeated Taser discharges and in some cases dangerous restraint techniques such as "hogtying" (shackling an individual by the wrists and ankles behind their back). The cases raise serious concern about the overall levels of force deployed by some police agencies as well the safety of Tasers.

Tasers have been described by many police departments as "filling a niche" on the force scale.(4) However, Amnesty International is concerned that deployment of Tasers, rather than minimizing the use of force, may dangerously extend the boundaries of what are considered "acceptable" levels of force. While the organization concedes that there may be limited circumstances under which Tasers might be considered an alternative to deadly force, there is evidence to suggest that measures such as stricter controls and training on the use of force and firearms can be more effective in reducing unnecessary deaths or injuries (see below, page 9).