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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"if you hold the trigger down, it will go until the battery life runs out of the tazer (sic)."
Juror: So it will go continuously until you let go?
Witness: correct."(14)

1. 3 Deployment of Tasers in the USA: life saver or routine force tool?

More than 5,000 law enforcement and correctional agencies in 49 US states are currently reported to be deploying or testing Taser equipment, with the take-up rate continuing to grow, reportedly by around 170 police agencies a month. Several US states which formerly banned all stun weapons have recently changed their laws to allow local and state police to deploy Tasers.(15) In some states they are deployed by police on university campuses and they have also been used in schools (see below).

Tasers have also been purchased by the US army, including for use in Iraq. (16) The US Air Force also reportedly deploys Tasers aboard aircraft carrying suspected al-Qa'ida members to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.(17) While few details have been provided about the use of Tasers by US military forces, one of the units deploying them in Iraq in 2003 was the 800th Military Police Brigade, accused of grave abuses in Abu Ghraib prison.(18)

New generation Tasers have also been purchased, or are undergoing testing, by police or military forces in other countries, including, reportedly, Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the UK.(19)

Tasers have also been authorized for use by the general public. Forty-three US states are reported to place few or no restrictions on possession of stun weapons by members of the public for private use.(20) While promoted as self-defence tools, for private users, they are easily open to abuse, without the controls or monitoring that apply to law enforcement use. Amnesty International cites several cases, below, in which parents have been prosecuted for child cruelty after using stun weapons to discipline their children. Stun weapons have also been reportedly used during the commission of crimes, or as instruments of torture or abuse, including of women by abusive partners or former partners.

Amnesty International is opposed to the sale of stun weapons for private use, given the difficulty in ensuring adequate standards of monitoring and control and the potential for abuse behind closed doors. While police officers undergo training and are subject to regulations governing the use of force, no such controls exist for the private sector. Unlike firearms, there are no licensing requirements in the USA for private use of Tasers.(21)

The latest model for private use in the USA is the Taser X26c Citizen Defense System, which was introduced for sale on-line through Taser International in September 2004. According to company literature, the Taser X26c, which can also be used as a stun gun, has a 15 feet stand-off capability and "operates at a slightly lower output than the law enforcement Taser X26". Disturbingly, it also operates "with an extended duration of up to 30 seconds per discharge".(22)

In the UK, modern Tasers have since 2003 been deployed by a number of police departments under the same strict guidelines as apply to firearms. They are allowed to be used only by authorized firearms officers, are kept in the firearms box and are issued only in appropriate situations where officers are faced with a threat of deadly force and the only other option would be use of a conventional firearm.

In the USA, Tasers are authorized for use in much broader circumstances, as discussed below. Nevertheless, they are promoted in the USA, as elsewhere, as an important tool in saving lives and reducing the need for lethal force. Under international standards, lethal force may only be used by officers in self-defence or the defence of others when there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury, and "only when less extreme measures are insufficient to achieve these objectives".(23)