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

Report
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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Amnesty International believes that electro-shock weapons, which have a powerful impact on the body and can cause acute pain, should never be considered a "low" or "intermediate" force option. However, a review of reported cases suggests that some departments are deploying Tasers in routine arrest situations, at the first sign of resistance or in the face of relatively minor resistance. Incidents include cases of people under the influence of alcohol or drugs who failed to comply promptly with commands, people who "mouthed off" at officers and people engaged in minor acts of public disturbance. The use of electro-shock weapons in such circumstances appear to breach international standards set out under the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms. These require that force should be used only as a last resort, in proportion to the threat posed and the legitimate objective to be achieved.(39)

Training materials on Tasers suggest that they are safe to use against a wide age range and that repeated shocks pose no additional risks. Confidence in such claims may explain why there are reports of Tasers being used against elderly people and children, and of people being subjected to multiple shocks. Tasers have also been used to subdue unarmed mentally ill or disturbed individuals who were not committing a crime or posing a threat of serious injury. Given the pain and the psychological impact or fear caused by being stunned or threatened with an electro-shock weapon, the use or threat of Tasers in these and other cases, even without physical injury, may constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The USA has ratified the UN Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body which monitors compliance with the ICCPR, states that "the aim of the provisions of article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is to protect both the dignity and the physical and mental integrity of the individual". The Committee emphasises that the prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in article 7 "relates not only to acts that cause physical pain but also to acts that cause mental suffering to the victim."(40)

The following accounts, based on press articles, police reports and other sources, illustrate Amnesty International's concerns about the way Tasers have been used in various US jurisdictions.

Florida
Local police agencies in Florida were among the first to adopt the new generation Tasers on a wide scale. Twelve (nearly one in five) of the recent US Taser-related deaths discussed under Chapter 2 occurred in Florida, with four in Orange County alone. In addition to those cases, Florida police have reportedly used Tasers to subdue: