Thursday, November 20, 2008

Less Than Lethal

The New South Wales Ombudsman has issued a report calling for a two year moratorium on the roll out of Taser stun guns for the Police Force, pending a further review of their safety. The report refers to an incident in May 2002 in which a mentally ill man, Gary Pearce, died about two weeks after police used a Taser against him. Mr. Pearce was behaving violently, and was threatening police with a frying pan. After being subdued, he was treated in hospital for his mental illness as well as physical injuries. After being discharged, he suffered a heart attack and died.

It must be recognized that Mr. Pearce suffered from long term heart disease, Hepatitus C, and a thyroid condition, as well as being a heavy smoker. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the heart attack was linked to the Taser attack. But of course the question remains; did the Taser attack contribute to his death? That’s a question which has not yet been settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

While it may well be reasonable to investigate Taser safety more thoroughly, Police are reported to be incensed by the report, pointing out the benefits of Tasers as a “less than lethal” alternative to using a gun. Police are concerned that their own safety is at risk when they are placed in a situation where they must defend themselves. When given the option of firing a gun or firing a Taser, it would seem to be a simple choice.

At present, every New South Wales Police officer is issued with a gun. But to access a Taser, a request has to be sent to the appropriate senior officer, and then the Taser must be sent to where it is needed. Hardly a split second response to a life threatening situation. Police maintain that under these circumstances more people are likely to die needlessly, when they could have been temporarily disabled by the Taser.

The concern that must be addressed is the perception of the Taser as “less than lethal”. As such it is easy to envisage officers resorting to their use much more readily and frequently than they would a gun. This has serious civil rights implications, and also safety implications. Even if there is a small risk of death from the use of a Taser, it is misleading to consider the weapon to be “less than lethal”.

Under such circumstances, perhaps a better phrase would be “potentially harmful” or even “potentially lethal”, and appropriate protocols can be devised for the use of Tasers. As such, a Taser should be used only as a substitute for a pistol, in similar to circumstances as those which would require a pistol.

Even so, the controversial stun gun is still vastly less likely to be lethal than the alternative. For that reason, it does seem almost insane to withhold Tasers from frontline police and deny them the option of keeping their service pistol in its holster.

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