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

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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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According to the literature, the new generation Tasers are designed "…to incapacitate dangerous, combative, or high risk subjects that may be impervious to other less-lethal means, regardless of pain tolerance, drug use, or body size". They have been described as "the only less-lethal weapon that can stop a truly focused, aggressive subject" and as "specifically designed to stop even elite, aggressive, focused combatants".(9)

In meetings with Amnesty International, Taser International has stressed that, unlike earlier models, the M26 and X26 Tasers are not designed to stop a target through infliction of pain but work by causing instant immobilization through muscle contraction. According to the company they are one of the few non-lethal weapons effective in causing incapacitation without physiological injury. They have pointed out that any pain involved is transient, with no after-effects. However, officers subjected to even a fraction of the normal Taser discharge during training have reported feeling acute pain:

"Bjornstad, who was jolted for 1.5 seconds as part of his training, said all of his muscles contracted and the shock was like a finger in a light socket many times over. "Anyone who has experienced it will remember it forever …You don't want to do this. It's very uncomfortable ... and that's an understatement." (The Olympian, 14 October 2002)

"It's like getting punched 100 times in a row, but once it's off, you are back to normal again." (The Olympian 2 March 2002)F

"It felt terrible." "It hurts. I'm going to think twice before I use this on anyone." (two officers quoted in the Mobile Register 8 April 2002).

"It is the most profound pain I have ever felt. You get total compliance because they don't want that pain again." (firearms consultant, quoted in The Associated Press 12 August 2003)

"They call it the longest five seconds of their life … it's extreme pain, there's no question about it. No one would want to get hit by it a second time." (County Sheriff, quoted in The Kalazazoo Gazette, Michigan, 7 March 2004)

Officers were initially exposed during training to only a fraction of the normal Taser discharge of five seconds, yet still testified to experiencing considerable pain. Amnesty International understands that it is now recommended that officers are subjected to a five-second shock, although at least one department no longer allows officers to be tasered at all during training, following complaints from officers.(10) While the pain is short-lived, this would not necessarily apply in the case of someone subjected to repeated or prolonged jolts of the Taser darts or stun gun (see below). Amnesty International has been told by an expert who has experienced shocks from both models that the X26 model is even more painful than the M26.

Unlike the dart-firing probes, the touch stun function only acts on a small part of the body, and causes pain and debilitation rather than total incapacitation. A Taser International training manual states that "If only the stun mode is used, the M26 becomes a pain compliance technique…"(11) The advice given in the manual for "stun mode areas" is to "aggressively drive M26 into:

  • Carotid/brachial stun area(12)
  • Groin
  • Common Peronial(13)."

Although, as stated above, the M26 and X26 Tasers are programmed to set off an automatic five-second electrical charge, this happens if an officer pulls the trigger and releases it. The electrical charge can be prolonged beyond five seconds if the officer keeps his finger depressed on the trigger. A Taser International training manual states that "holding the trigger continuously beyond the 5 second cycle will continue the electrical cycle until the trigger is released". The following testimony was given by a police training officer at an inquest into the death of William Lomax, who had a Taser in stun gun mode applied repeatedly to his neck in jolts lasting up to eight seconds each: