Sunday, March 07, 2004

Shocking developments

According the manufacturer, over 4,000 police departments in the US are now using tasers. Tasers are guns which instead of bullets shoot wire-connected barbed projectiles that can impart a painful and temporarily-paralyzing electric shock to a victim.

A lot of people sing their praises, says Sunday's New York Times, because they give police a nonlethal way to defuse situations that otherwise might lead to bloodshed.

There are, however, real concerns. One is the potential for abuse.
But as the Taser spreads rapidly, it is raising questions about whether the weapon, which can also be applied directly to the skin as a stun gun, could be abused by the police. The Taser zaps suspects with 50,000 volts of electricity, disabling them for five seconds at a time. Critics say the weapon is ripe for abuse because the shock leaves no obvious mark, other than what looks like a small bee sting. Human rights groups in the United States and abroad have called Tasers potential instruments of torture. ...

[C]ritics and watchdog groups say the Taser could be used to torture suspects and prison inmates to extract confessions or taunt them, and Amnesty International has called for a ban on their use pending studies on their long-term effects.
Another is the fact that even though
police say that 50,000 volts is a safe amount of electricity to absorb and that suspects shot with a Taser recover immediately,
I have no idea why we're supposed to regard police departments as experts on the physiological effects of electric shock. (In fact, voltage is not the real issue with regard to harm; even the little shocks you get from touching a doorknob after scuffing your feet on a carpet can be several thousand volts. Current in the more serious concern. Just 30 milliamps - that's 0.03 amps - through your heart could kill you.) In any event, there are real risks in using the device. People have died in the wake of being hit by tasers, although police invariably claim other causes unrelated to the device.

The thing that concerns me the most, however, was not really mentioned in the article, except once, indirectly.
"Surely it's better than being killed," said Dan Handelman, a founder of Portland [OR] Copwatch, a group that has been critical of that city's growing use of Tasers over the last year. "But it's not necessarily an acceptable replacement because it's not being used - at least in Portland - in place of lethal force, it's being used for compliance."
The infliction of pain, sometimes intense, to "secure compliance" - better described as meek and unquestioning obedience - is well-established practice among police forces everywhere. With the increasing availability of tasers, especially combined with repeated assurances that they are safe and even "humane," will come the increasing temptation to use them routinely, no longer in lieu of lethal force but in lieu of persuasion and patience, no longer against someone posing a physical threat but against someone giving "a hard time," no longer for protection but for dominance.

The movement for nonlethal alternatives in police work is a good one. Tasers should not be regarded as part of that effort.

Footnote: Supporters of tasers say there's nothing to fear regarding abuse because of built-in safeguards.
Each Taser, which is powered by batteries, has a data port that records each shock and is used by police departments when they prepare incident reports, allowing supervisors to count how many times a Taser was fired.
So our protection against abuse by police is internal police reports? I feel so much better.

Update: Minor edits for clarity and correction of typos

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