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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In its recommendations, contained at the end of the report, Amnesty International is reiterating its call on federal, state and local authorities and law enforcement agencies to suspend all transfers and use of electro-shock weapons, pending an urgent rigorous, independent and impartial inquiry into their use and effects.

Where US law enforcement agencies refuse to suspend Tasers, the organization is recommending that their use of Tasers is strictly limited to situations where the alternative under international standards would be deadly force, with detailed reporting and monitoring procedures.


1.2. Background on Taser Use

"I have always stated that the only way to guarantee a knockdown of a human being is to shoot them in the central nervous system with a bullet. In my opinion the ADVANCED TASER comes extremely close to doing the same thing, but from a less-lethal perspective." Sgt Darren Laur, Control Tactics Coordinator, Victoria Police Department, Canada, writing in a review article, published in the October 1999 issue of Law Enforcement Technology.

"It just takes your legs out. It's like a jackhammer going Kaboom, Kaboom, Kaboom!" Sgt Burt Robinson Chandler, Police SWAT team, Arizona, describing the M26 Advanced Taser on website of security equipment company, Security Planet Corp.

Named after the hero of a popular science fiction series,(5) Tasers were originally developed by a California-based company in the 1970s. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) became the first major agency to introduce them in 1974. (The videotape of the LAPD beating of Rodney King in March 1991 shows an officer holding a Taser gun he had fired at King, trying to keep the wires from getting tangled as King rolled on the ground from police baton blows.) Tasers have been promoted as having advantages over other non-lethal weapons as they can be applied at a distance (avoiding injury to officers) and, unlike chemical sprays, are not affected by wind and do not risk contaminating officers or bystanders. However, the earlier Taser models were not always effective, especially in the case of individuals who were highly agitated or under the influence of drugs such as phenylcyclohexyl piperidine (PCP).(6) During the 1990s, companies started to develop more powerful prototypes of the Taser and other stun weapons.

Thousands of US law enforcement agencies now deploy the M26 Advanced Taser, which are several times more powerful than the original version used by the LAPD and other agencies in the 1970s and 1980s. The M26 is one of a new generation of Tasers developed by Taser International, an Arizona-based company, and was introduced for operational use in late 1999. It operates on 26 watts of electrical output (compared to 5-7 watts of earlier models) and discharges pulsed energy to deliver a 50,000 volt shock designed to override the subject's central nervous system, causing uncontrollable contraction of the muscle tissue and instant collapse.(7) In May 2003, Taser International introduced a new model, the Taser X26, which is 60% smaller and lighter than the M26 but has the same voltage and, according to the manufacturer, an incapacitating effect which is 5% greater than the M26.(8) Both fire two probes up to a distance of 21 feet and are programmed to be activated in five-second bursts of electricity, although, as shown below, the electrical charge can be prolonged beyond five seconds if the officer's finger remains depressed on the trigger. The shocks can also be repeated so long as both probes remain attached to the subject. The darts are fired by an air cartridge which has to be reloaded if a second firing is required. Both models have laser sights, for accurate targeting (and avoiding hitting vulnerable spots such as eyes or face). They also have a built-in memory option to record the time and date of each firing (see below for more on this).

Both the M26 and the X26 can also be used without the air cartridge, as "touch" stun guns, to apply electric shocks directly to the subject at close range. The duration of the cycle in stun gun mode is the same as in the dart projectile mode.