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Thursday, October 07, 2010

Talking about tasers

October 7, 2010
Emma Ryan, ABC News

Having listened to the public debate in the last several days about Tasers, it seems to me that Australians need to know more about these weapons.

Since their rollout across the country (which is happening in increments) whenever a police shooting or ‘Taser proximate’ death occurs (I’m being deliberately careful with my language here) we ask ‘why wasn’t there a Taser?’ or ‘are Tasers really safe?’

I think our confusion stems largely from the fact that the public, and even the police, are misinformed about the weapon, distracted by the manufacturer’s spin and presented with impenetrable detail about how Taser’s special electronic wave form cannot kill. There has been very little informed debate on the introduction and use of these weapons, which I believe should be restricted to specialist police because of their capacity to amplify police power beyond what ought to be acceptable in a liberal democracy.

A main focus of the spin around Tasers is that they are very safe and that medical and scientific research supports this. If people die following their use, manufacturers argue it must be something else that killed them (‘excited delirium’, drug toxicity, underlying heart trouble). For young, fit, healthy people, Tasers probably are relatively safe - but for a host of other people, many of whom might predictably come into contact with police regularly, Tasers are not so risk free.

In truth, we do not know much about the safety of Tasers. Not enough research has been done, and too much of what has been done is sponsored, directly or indirectly, by manufacturers.

Another misconception is that Tasers are a useful replacement for firearms. In fact only a relatively small percentage of ‘critical incidents’ lend themselves well to Taser use (suicide prevention being one of them). This is because Tasers fail, often enough for many jurisdictions’ policies to require police to be backed up by a firearm if considering Taser use against someone armed with an edged weapon or a gun. Tasers are simply not as reliable as a firearm in genuinely life threatening situations. While the officer in Sefton on Monday morning was lucky his two barbs made sufficient contact to stop the threat, he was presumably covered by his partner’s firearm in the event of Taser failure.

It seems to me that too much public debate about Taser use by police in Australia is clouded by favourable comparisons of Tasers to firearms. In a truly critical incident, they may well be a useful option, but the fact is that Tasers are used in Australia during mundane policing encounters, involving low levels of threat, with far greater frequency than critical incidents arise.

For instance, in WA in 2009 police drew their Tasers 1,013 times and their use of firearms increased following the introduction of Tasers. Certainly there are occasions when police avoid using firearms because they have recourse to Tasers, such as was the case on Tuesday morning. But more often, Tasers simply replace the use of batons or OC spray.

Evidence from the recent WA police review and Crime and Corruption Commission report highlight this. Police view Tasers as an ‘intermediate’ weapon. Their extensive use against unarmed people during the NSW trial also demonstrates this.

So while it is true that Tasers do have some capacity to ‘save lives’, albeit in very limited circumstances, it must be emphasised that they also have an equal (perhaps even greater) capacity to reinforce police power, along with its corollary, abuse of power. This notion is not so prominent in the debate and deserves much more consideration.

Police, understandably perhaps, prefer Tasers because they present significant advantages over other sublethals. They make suspect compliance easier to obtain, and reduce the strains of ‘the job’. When used correctly, they are less likely to cause injury than a baton (whilst presenting the opportunity to place more distance between police and suspects), and they present no risk of secondary exposure (which can occur when the wind blows capsicum spray back onto police or bystanders).

In Western Australia, Tasers are the ‘weapon of choice’ and so it seems clear that their purpose is not solely to reduce the use of lethal force - although this was certainly the premise upon which they have been introduced in Australian jurisdictions, often on the back of Coronial recommendations, and police union pressure about the importance of officer safety.

Despite such high ideals, the record shows that the majority of Taser ‘uses’ in Australia involve presentation or display only – there is usually no need to fire the weapon to achieve the desired end. Potentially, the same could be achieved with a firearm - although this would probably cause a furore.

Tasers are used in this way, I would argue, largely because of the widespread perception that Tasers cannot kill - and don’t ever say that they can, lest Taser International litigate, as they have successfully done in several US examples where medical examiners have included them as a cause or contributor to a death, and as they did the Canadian Braidwood Commission which followed the death of a polish man at Vancouver Airport. They lost that case – leaving the Commission’s finding, that Tasers can cause death under certain circumstances, to stand.

Without adequate product testing, we are left to test the safety margins of Tasers ‘in the field’. People don’t die during Taser’s research projects, but they do seem to die in the streets (in increasing numbers, now four in Australia and up to 513 in North America).

The facts about why people sometimes die after being Tasered are simply not known. Tasers leave little to no clues for pathologists, who therefore find it difficult to pinpoint cause of death in these cases. Our knowledge is just emerging around these issues. We know plenty about the reality of mission creep though. And while Tasers may have saved the officers lives on Tuesday morning, a firearm could have done the same thing, with far less capacity to slip down the ladder of disproportionate use of force, as Tasers are clearly doing.

Emma Ryan is an Assistant Lecturer in Criminology at Monash University. She is completing a doctoral thesis on sublethal weapons and policing in Australia.

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