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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"The Advanced Taser is not a substitute for lethal force. However, many situations that begin as standoffs have the potential to escalate to lethal force. Early, aggressive use of a less-lethal weapon like the M26 can prevent many of these situations from escalating to deadly force levels".(25)

Some police departments have reported a significant fall in police shootings following the introduction of Tasers. In February 2004, the Phoenix Police Department, Arizona, announced that officer-involved shootings had fallen by 54% from 28 in 2002 to 13 in 2003, with fatal shootings down from 13 to 9 during the same period, the lowest number since 1990. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said "I am proud that Phoenix is the first city in the nation to equip all of our police officers with Tasers. We are committed to providing our officers with the latest technology, support and equipment that they need in order to protect them and the community."(26) A Taser International brochure reported that use of firearms and impact weapons by Orange County (Florida) sheriff's deputies fell by 80% following the introduction of the Advanced Taser in 2000, "reducing injuries and saving lives".(27)

Reports of a fall in police shootings in the cities of Seattle and Miami have similarly been attributed, at least in part, to the introduction of Tasers. Both police departments reported no fatal police shootings for the first time more than a decade in the year Tasers were introduced – in Miami's case there were no police shootings, fatal or otherwise, for the first time in 14 years.(28) Other departments have reported on specific instances where officers have used Tasers instead of firearms to disarm suicidal or mentally ill individuals armed with weapons such as knives, although reports of officers using Tasers when confronted with people with guns appear to be much rarer.

Amnesty International welcomes any reduction in the use of lethal force. However, claims that Tasers have led to a fall in police shootings need to be put into perspective, given that shootings constitute only a small percentage of all police use of force. In contrast, Taser usage has increased dramatically, becoming the most prevalent force option in some departments. While police shootings in Phoenix fell from 28 to 13 in 2003, Tasers were used that year in 354 use-of-force incidents, far more than would be needed to avoid a resort to lethal force.

Use of non-lethal weapons may be only one factor leading to a fall in police shootings and other serious force. In Miami, for example, the fall in officer-involved shootings may be due in part to greater oversight following several high profile prosecutions of Miami police officers for civil rights violations involving wrongful shootings and an ongoing federal Justice Department investigation into an alleged pattern of excessive force.(29)

Representatives of Taser International who met with Amnesty International in July 2004 said there had been a significant reduction in injuries to suspects and officers following the introduction of Tasers, according to police reports of operational use across the USA. The company noted that many other types of force, such as use of batons or police dogs resulted in higher injury levels than the Taser. It was stressed that a reduction in injuries was likely to be more pronounced where Tasers were used below the level justifying lethal force as all use of physical force, including light hands-on force, could result in some bodily injury.

However, as shown below, many departments allow officers to use Tasers in situations that would not justify the use of batons or other impact weapons liable to cause serious injury. Reports suggest that, in some departments, Tasers are used by officers primarily as a substitute for pepper or chemical sprays, which may themselves be considered a relatively low-level force option. Amnesty International has frequently raised concern about alleged misuse of pepper spray by law enforcement officers, including its use in situations that do not merit this degree of force.(30) The organization suggests that, rather than substituting electro-shock weapons for pepper spray or other force options, better training and restraint in the use of force would be a more appropriate strategy in many situations.