Law enforcement should be held accountable to the public upon deploying a Taser to the same extent as firing a gun.
(This is my final paper for “Argument Based Writing”. I got an A. I know! I’m sharing because I’m kinda proud but mostly want to get the info out there. Students: do not be tempted to plagarize this. If you found it, so can your teacher.)
The Taser (an anagram for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle) was introduced in 1974. It fires an electrified barb up to 25 feet that delivers a painful shock (Berenton). In the 1990s, Tom and Rick Smith created Air Taser (which eventually became Taser International) selling a seven-watt weapon that they marketed to police departments (Schlosberg). And police departments have been buying them. Over 6000 US police departments have bought Taser products (as of 2005), and over 200 have purchased a Taser for every officer (Cusac). Despite rising concern for the safety of the weapon, police are using Tasers with increasing regularity. Tasers should be treated as firearms. Taser use should be regulated and restricted to situations in which the suspect is causing or about to cause bodily harm. Law enforcement should be held accountable to the public upon deploying a Taser to the same extent as firing a gun.
According to Taser International’s website, http://www.taser.com, the consumer versions of the Taser (C2) is around six inches long, weighs about seven ounces, with a three-second shock time, and “discreet enough to be carried in a pocket, hand bag, backpack, or just about anywhere.” The C2 reminds me of an electric razor. The version police officers carry (X26) is larger and has a greater range (25 feet) with a five to ten-second shock-time. The X26 looks like a space age black and bright yellow gun with a large X on the side reminiscent of comic book heroes The X-Men. Early versions were low wattage, with only five watts of power (Cusac). The wattage has increased over the years. Over fourteen watts causes electro-muscular disruption, which is an “uncontrollable contraction of the muscle tissue” that can “physically debilitate a target regardless of pain tolerance or mental focus” (Cusac). The X26 has twenty-six watts of power (Cusac). Taser International’s website states:
Energy is sent over the wires into the probes, which can penetrate up to two cumulative inches of clothing. The charge is transmitted between the two probes, jamming sensory and motor functions, and inhibiting muscular control.
The United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) ruled that the Air Taser was not a firearm because it uses nitrogen not gunpowder to launch the probes (www.taser.com). This ruling exempted Taser International from federal firearm regulations, allowing the company free to market without “government interference or oversight” to police departments, departments of correction, security companies, the military, and overseas law enforcement (Schlosberg). A consumer version is available to the mass public in most states. A buyer does not have to acquire a license to carry or conceal the weapon.
Police officers have reasons to like the Taser. They find it to be effective in ending potentially violent conflicts without injuries. One Utah police chief states, “it’s increasingly a less lethal weapon of choice. It’s proven to be a relatively safe and effective tool” (Cusac). Statistically, in a study of field applications of the Taser, 99.7% of people tased had no injury or only mild injuries (Hall). Police departments claim that Tasers have reduced rates of injuries and fatalities. Phoenix, Arizona, had a 54% drop in police shootings its first year of Taser use and Seattle had its first year in fifteen years of no shootings involving officers (Cusac).
Terry Hillard, former Superintendent of the Chicago police department says he wishes he had Taser technology during his time as Superintendent. “It may have prevented two lethal force incidents that occurred within a 24-hour period.” Litigation from these incidents cost the city over $25 million, “more than enough to have covered the cost of a full deployment of Taser devices to every officer in Chicago” (www.taser.com). According to testimonials for the consumer model on Taser International’s website, simply aiming the C2’s laser sight at a potential attacker has been enough to deter him. A lady named Paige Anderson in her video testimony tells of running a potential rapist out of a parking garage by just saying she had a Taser (www.taser.com).
Taser International’s slogan is “Saving Lives Every Day” (Schlosberg). As a substitute for shooting somebody, the weapon can save lives. In 2006, a 16 year-old girl holding a small knife in a deserted park was shot to death by two police officers in Huntington Beach, California (Greenhut). If the officers had Tasers, this scenario might not have ended fatally.
According to Amnesty International, more than 300 people have died in North America after being shocked by a Taser (Marks, Use). In many of the Taser related fatalities, the victims were under the influence of drugs. Often they were shocked multiple times in a short period (Schlosberg). One victim had twenty-two Taser marks on his body (Schlosberg). Drugs and alcohol can cause a condition called excited delirium, which can increase risk of fatal cardiac arrhythmia when shocked by a Taser (Marks, Shocking). According to University of California cardiologist Zian Tseng, even healthy people can be at risk if hit by a Taser at the wrong period of the heart beat cycle (Schlosberg). “If I hit the heart or create electricity in the wrong time of the beat cycle, it could send the whole heart into an electric tailspin”, says Tseng (Schlosberg). Multiple shocks increase the risk of the electric charge hitting the vulnerable period. Tseng likens it to playing Russian roulette with the heart (Schlosberg). Taser International to this day has denied that any death was the result of their device and that all reported after-tasing deaths are “attributable to other factors and not the low-energy electrical discharge of the Taser” (Morgan).
A Taser incident need not be fatal to be inappropriate. “Tasers are suffering from mission creep, from being an alternative to lethal firearms they are now becoming an indiscriminate compliance tool,” says Nick Lewer of the University of Bradford, UK (Marks). When Taser International claims the Taser has saved 8000 lives, do they mean 8000 people were shocked instead of being shot to death by police officers? I doubt police officers would appreciate Taser International promoting their product with thestatistic phrased that way. No, it is a false spin on the numbers as not every use of a Taser is a substitute for the deadly use of firearms. Taser International’s own training materials recommend using the weapon in less threatening instances as “flight of unarmed suspects to verbal displays of hostility and non-compliance” (Schlosberg). People who have been tased by police officers include “the elderly, children as young as one year old, people apparently suffering diabetic shock and epileptic seizures, [and] people already bound in restraints” (Cusac). These are basically harmless people in situations it would be ridiculous and illegal to use firearms to resolve. According to Amnesty International, a Pueblo Colorado police officer shocked a man strapped into a hospital bed screaming for his wife (Cusac). Tasers are linked to other serious injuries that do not include death. One of the 50,000 volunteers that Taser International claims to have been shocked by a Taser when offering their claim that “there have been no long term injuries caused by the Taser,” is Deputy Samuel Powers. Powers suffered fractured vertebra after being shocked during training (Schlosberg). Deputy Powers and officers in at least five states have filed suit against Taser International for Taser related injuries including “multiple spinal fractures, burns, shoulder dislocation, and soft tissue injuries” (Schlosberg). On the website YouTube (www.youtube.com), one can watch a seemingly endless array of videos of people being tasered by police. The victims range from ten year-old-girls to little old ladies in wheelchairs. Maybe it is a matter of “bad news sells” and good news does not get reported, but what is missing videos of police tasering someone who is actually a threat to life or limb.
Taser International’s website (www.taser.com) markets their product to law enforcement with language that stress the safety of the officer; “Officers don’t get paid to get hurt.” Steven Greenhut sums up what police often tell him as “Our only concern is getting home safely at the end of the day” (Greenhut). Statements like that reveal that police officers feel an oversized sense of danger and that officer safety is becoming a larger concern than public safety. “The police culture in our country has changed,” claims former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara (Greenhut). Modern policemen are likely to have a military mentality and often a military background (Greenhut). “Reasonable people accept that a cop’s job is difficult and dangerous,” says McNamara, “But the police are not and should never be allowed to think of themselves as soldiers or to believe they are at that level of danger” (Greenhut). Indeed, the job of police officer is nowhere near the top ten on the Department of Labor’s list of most dangerous jobs (www.dol.gov). This perceived threat level combined with the Taser’s advertised safety record has resulted in an increased use of the weapon in situations a far cry from life threatening.
Aside from a lack of regulations regarding the use of Tasers, the is also a lack of accountability of police activity to the public. “There is no serious oversight of police behavior. Law enforcement writes the rules of engagement, investigates its own officers, and has a well-oiled publicity machine that kicks in whenever something disturbing takes place” (Greenhut ). Whenever a Taser incident makes a headline there is always a police spokesman to say that the offending officers only “did what they were trained to do” (Greenhut). In an Illinois case Sheriff’s deputies held down a 12 year-old on a bed, tased him in the neck and threatened to sodomize him and reputedly tased another minor. Sherrif Roger Mulch stated that an investigation by Illinois State Police found “no indication of any wrongdoing” (Police). The children involved were committing no crime and were never charged with anything. There is virtually no public oversight for officers that follow the rules and hurt or kill citizens, or for officers who act outside of proper authority and abuse their power (Greenhut). Combine this with the advertised perceptionof safety of Tasers and police officers’ perception of being in perpetual danger, we have a situation where police officers are using the Taser as an all purpose cattle prod instead of a substitute for deadly force as originally intended. According to Amnesty International USA director Larry Cox, “Most of the cases we’ve looked at, there’s been no weapon involved at all [on the part of the suspect], let alone a deadly weapon. So these are not situations where necessarily the police officer sees a threat” (Morgan).
It hurts to be hit with a Taser. A police officer should not have the right to hurt citizens for minor infractions. Taser survivor Margaret Kimbrell, 75, of Rock Hill, South Carolina, described the shock as “traveling all over your chest like a big snake or something worming to get out. I prayed, ‘ Lord Jesus, make it quicker.’ I was waiting to die so the pain would go away” (Cusac). The United Nations Committee Against Torture has declared Tasers to be an instrument of torture, stating they create extreme pain and have a proven risk of death (Morgan). “These are people that have seen torture around the world, all kinds of torture. So they don’t use the word lightly,” remarked Larry Cox(Morgan).
Seven states and the District of Columbia have made it illegal for citizens to own Tasers, including the C2 consumer version (www.taser.com). Groups such as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP have proposed bans on the weapon, at least until more research is done and better regulations in place. I would like to see strong regulations put in place. Tasers should only be used in life threatening situations, in very limited circumstances. They should only be used as a substitute for firearms and treated as a firearm. There should be restriction on whom a Taser can be used on. The weapon should not ever be used on pregnant women, the elderly, children or anyone already in restraints or unconscious (if you think this is common sense and a cop would never do such a stupid thing, think again). They should never be used on passive resisters. Many departments have policies of their own, and some progressive departments observe these restrictions and others (Schlosberg). But so far, Taser use policy is up to the individual departments to implement. Police departments need to become more open with the public about their internal investigations and disciplinary actions, or we have to continue to assume they are corrupt. But as long as police departments investigate and discipline themselves, there can be no real accountability to the public. Appealing to Law and Order is always a huge vote getter and no policy maker can get far being perceived as “weak on crime,” but we need police officers who are not weak on crime but respectful to the civilians—the citizens, the taxpayers who they are supposed to be working for. In researching this topic I have become more fearful of the police. In too many instances the victim of a Taser shock is like Kailee Martinez (Fourteen), a law-abiding citizen until they encounter a police officer. Her crime was running away when she saw the Taser. She was scared. The question is: are the police our public servants or are they our overseers, some kind of Gestapo? It seems that the days of Officer Friendly are over, and we are quickly moving toward the comic book world’s judge, jury, and executioner Judge Dredd, wearing a big helmet and carrying a bigger gun, stating, “I am the Law.”
Berenson, Alex. “Police Group Urges Limit on Taser Use.” New York Times 19 October 2005: 13. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 Nov. 2009.
Cruz, Gilbert. “Jack Cover.” Time 19 Feb. 2009. 3 Nov. 2009 <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1880636,00.html>.
Cusac, Anne-Marie. “The Trouble with Tasers.” Progressive 69.4 (2005): 22-27. SIRS Researcher. Web. 8 Nov. 2009
Greenhut, Steven. “The Militarization of American Police.” Freeman 58.2 (2008): 15 – 20. SIRS Research. Web. 13 Nov. 2009.
Hall, Christine A. “Public Risk from Tasers: Unacceptably High or Low Enough to Accept?” Editorial. The Journal of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians 11 Jan. 2009: 84-86. Academic Research Premier. EBSCO. Web. 8 Nov. 2009
Marks, Paul. “The Shocking Use of Police Stun Guns.” New Scientist 12 Nov. 2005: 30-31 Academic Research Premier. EBSCO. Web. 16 Nov. 2009 — “Use Only as Defense and have Medical Care Ready.” New Scientist 203. 2732 (2009): 20-21. Academic Research Premier. EBSCO. Web. 8 Nov. 2009
Morgan, David. “U.N.: Taserrs Are a Form of Torture.” CBS News.com 25 Nov 2007. 8 Dec. 2009 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/25/national/main3537803.shtml> “Police Threaten to Sodomize a 12 yr old while Tasering Him.” 2009. YouTube.
AreYouConcerned. 8 Dec. 2009 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8zLdbgwC-E&feature=related >
“Fourteen yr old girl Tasered in the Head” 2009. YouTube. CopsOutOfControl. 8 Dec. 2009 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fizo-sOSE6o>
Schlosberg, Mark. “Stun Gun Fallacy: How the Lack of Taser Regulations Endangers Lives”. San Francisco: ACLU of Northern California. Sept. 2005.