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Saturday, December 13, 2008

The taser myth: how does a 'non-lethal weapon' kill 400 people?

December 13, 2008
By Liliana Segura, AlterNet

On Sept. 24, in Brooklyn, N.Y., a 35-year-old man named Iman Morales fell to his death after a 22-minute standoff with New York Police. Morales, who was described as "emotionally disturbed," had climbed onto the fire escape of a building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, naked and waving a metal pole. Unable to talk him down, one officer, under order from his lieutenant, shot Morales with a Taser gun, at which point he fell to the sidewalk, head-first.

He was taken to the hospital, where he was declared dead.

One week later, the officer who gave the order, Lt. Michael W. Pigott, drove to Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Field, a former air base used by the NYPD, took a 9mm Glock from a locker room, and shot himself in the head.

It's hard to know which are more ubiquitous at this point: stories of accidental death by Tasers, or stories of police brutality involving bullets. Just this week, in New York, a Bronx man was shot and killed after he allegedly waved a baseball bat at police officers who entered his home. In theory, these sorts of confrontations are the reason such "non-lethal" weapons as Tasers exist. But news reports tell a different tale. In the United States and Canada, more than 400 people have died after being Tasered since 2001.

Apart from his suicide, what sets Pigott apart from most police officers who kill people using Tasers is that he must have realized that the order to Taser Morales could deal a fatal blow. Why he decided to do it anyway will remain unanswered. And it's impossible to know whether remorse over Morales' death was the driving factor behind his decision to take his life, or whether it was the stripping of his badge after over 20 years on the force -- or something else.

Regardless, for people who carry a Taser as an alternative to a gun, the realization that they are actually deadly weapons must deal a hard blow.

Despite the rather old news that Tasers can kill, the news media continue to be littered with reports of trigger-happy Taserers, many of whom should be relieved that their victims lived. This week in Oklahoma, police Tasered a man who had gone into diabetic shock while driving, which caused him to spin out of control on the road. (The officers felt "extremely bad" upon realizing that he was not drunk or high but rather in need of medical attention.) In another report, last month, undercover cops in North Carolina Tasered a man acting as a pallbearer at his father's funeral. (The local sheriff apologized for the deputies' behavior. "Family, friends, relatives. … That was a bad decision.")

Appalling social behavior aside, it doesn't seem hard to unearth the psychology behind excessive Taser use. It must be easy to be quick on the draw when toting a weapon that is like a pretend firearm. Like guns, Tasers are about much more than self-defense. For civilians (and cops), the sense of power that comes from carrying a weapon is a central part of the appeal. Taser International, Inc. has capitalized on this -- a trio of new C2 Taser models, which have been aggressively marketed toward women, come in leopard print and two styles of camouflage. ("Who says safety can't be stylish?" reads the marketing tag on the Taser Web site.) Tasers fulfill a powerful, violent fantasy: the ability to shoot someone without deadly consequences.

Taser's marketing coup has been to convince consumers that there is such a thing as a gun that won't kill. The number of deaths caused by Tasers cuts through this myth.

Recently, a new study discovered that the most common model of Taser used by police officers are far more hazardous than the company claims, capable of firing dangerous levels of electricity that can raise the risk of heart attack by as much as 50 percent. Shortly after the release of the findings, Canadian police departments pulled Tasers from their forces. ("Police departments in the United States, however, appear to have taken no similar action," reported the Arizona Republic.)

Pierre Savard, a biomedical engineer at the University of Montreal, led the study, which Taser International claims is composed of "false allegations based on scientifically flawed data". Last year, he also examined the high-profile death of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who died after being Tasered by police at Vancouver International Airport.

"At first, I thought (Taser) was a great product," Savard told the Arizona Republic. "My point of view is that police officers already carry firearms, which are definitely more dangerous. So the Taser is much less dangerous to start with. But it should be used in a cautious manner.

"As a scientist … the risk is not zero."

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