You may have arrived here via a direct link to a specific post. To see the most recent posts, click HERE.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Canadian uproar over Tasers mirrors U.S., with several recent deaths

November 26, 2007
The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON - When Florida student Andrew Meyer was stunned with a Taser gun this fall at a campus session with Senator John Kerry, the dramatic video footage made all the networks. And it re-ignited debate in the United States about the use and dangers of the brand-name guns that zap people with high-voltage electric shocks.

Now, with the deaths of four Americans who were tased in the last 10 days, there are new demands to ban them. All told, there have been six deaths in the United States since Robert Dziekanski died last month at Vancouver Airport in a highly contentious case that's provoked a national debate about the weapons in Canada.

That concern is mirrored south of the border. "People are paying attention," said Jason Disterhoft at Amnesty International U.S.A. "It seems like people are worried and rightly so."

If the issue has resurfaced as a top-of-mind for U.S. government officials, rights groups and cops, it has been prominent here for the last few years. Amnesty has consistently raised concern about the use of Tasers in routine law enforcement situations or as a weapon of first resort. The group has been calling on police departments to suspend use of Tasers or at least limit them to situations involving the threat of death or serious injury. Tasing someone who is not violent and poses no threat to himself or others constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, says Amnesty.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture singled out Tasers at a Geneva conference last Friday, agreeing that the most popular model caused so much pain that using it "constituted a form of torture." "At the least, we'd like to see law enforcement use it only when lethal force is the only alternative," said Disterhoft.

Meyer, for instance, was still posing questions to Kerry after his time ran out and he resisted attempts by university police to remove him. After yelling out: "Don't tase me, bro," he got a blast from the stun gun as he lay on the ground, with one arm handcuffed. Two of the policemen were placed on paid administrative leave and Meyer agreed to 18 months of probation to avoid criminal charges of resisting arrest.

In Utah, an officer recently tased a driver who refused to sign a speeding ticket. A patrol car's dashboard camera caught it on tape and the incident became popular on YouTube. The officer is under investigation, accused of being too quick to pull out the Taser.

Other recent U.S. cases have been far more grave, including the death Nov. 18 of 20-year-old Jarrel Grey, who died in Frederick, Md., after a sheriff's deputy tried to break up a late-night brawl.

Black leaders are calling for a ban on Tasers, at least until there's a clear policy on how they're used by cops. That's something police want as well, saying it's not right to send officers out to make split second decisions without proper guidelines and training.

Those vary significantly across the country among some 12,000 police departments that use Tasers.

"My sense is there is no cogent policy nationwide," said Rich Roberts at the International Union of Police Associations in Sarasota, Fla., which is developing a research project on Tasers. "I'm afraid the same thing may apply to training. My fear is too many departments may be (explaining) the technology and that's it." What cops need to know, said Roberts, is exactly where the Taser belongs in the "force continuum," so it will be used appropriately. But it should "absolutely" be part of the police arsenal, along with pepper spray, batons and guns, he said.

Since it isn't classified as a firearm, it's exempt from federal firearms requirement and regulations. There's still no agreement in the United States on whether Tasers, wihich release 50,000 volts of electricity, can actually kill or whether the victims had pre-existing conditions.

The manufacturer, Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz., concedes on its website that the technology is not risk-free but the company says no deaths have been definitively linked to the product.

Dziekanski is recorded as the 18th person in Canada to die in recent years after being hit by a Taser, while Amnesty says 280 people have died since July 2001 in the United States, where the devices can also be used by civilians in many states. That works out to roughly the same rate of deaths per capita in both countries.

"Nobody really knows exactly why these people are dying," Amnesty executive director Larry Cox told CBS News. "It may be because they have a heart condition. It may be because they're on drugs. It may be because of some other factor that we don't know about. The important thing is, they are dying after they are Tasered. That cannot be denied, no matter how you spin the language."

Last month, Wake Forest University released an independent study of injuries associated with Tasers, saying they're relatively harmless and pose minimal risks. Dr. William Bozeman, a lead researcher, added the device isn't a "magical sort of thing that can't hurt anybody ever."

The U.S. Justice Department is expected to release a major report on Tasers next year. And some government officials are already hoping to replace it. The Homeland Security Department, for instance, is looking at creating a new non-lethal weapon called the LED Incapacitator.

It would use high-intensity light-emitting diodes to temporarily blind people and make them dizzy.

No comments: