Friday, June 12, 2009

Stun Guns Are Still Dangerous Weapons

New South Wales Police have long been campaigning for the more widespread introduction of the Taser stun gun to provide officers with a non lethal option in dangerous confrontations. For many, it would seem obvious that it would be preferable to be shot with a stun gun than with a real gun, but there are others who still hold concerns about the use of such weapons. Critics warn that while Tasers are considered non lethal there have been significant numbers of controversial deaths associated with the devices in the United States. Today, a man died in Queensland after reportedly being shot with a Taser three times.

This is not the first death in Australia, and it has yet to be established whether or not there were other contributing factors, but it would appear that there is enough evidence to warrant concern that Tasers may not always be non-lethal. Previously a man in the Northern Territory has died last month after being hit with a Taser, and another man died two weeks after he was subdued by a Taser in New South Wales in 2002. While other factors are almost certainly involved, it has yet to be established just exactly what the risk of death is when somebody is subjected to the electric shock of a Taser.

The real question is not whether or not a Taser is a better option than a standard issue Police pistol, because obviously the bullet is far more likely to kill a person than the Taser. The real question is the protocol to be applied to the use of the Taser, and under what circumstances. The problem is that when such a device is commonly assumed to be non-lethal it tends to promote a different attitude to its use. It becomes far easier to become more casual, more complacent about the possible risks. It becomes far easier to draw a Taser when an officer might hesitate to draw a pistol.

Recent stories from the United States would seem to support this view. For example, a 72 year old great grandmother is threatening to sue police in Texas after she was “Tased” for resisting arrest. She had been stopped for speeding and was arguing with the officer. When she was threatened with the Taser she said “Go ahead, I dare you!” so that’s what the officer did. In another case, a small chihuaha dog was tasered by police officers in Ohio. The problem is that the idea that the Taser is safe can promote the careless, casual, and even reckless misuse of the weapon.

Simply describing it as “non lethal” is enough to give people the wrong idea. It is still a dangerous weapon and must be described as such. If police are to be entrusted with its use, they must be trained to treat it the same as a pistol, and consider it to be a measure of last resort. If the operational use of such a weapon is not properly regulated there is too much opportunity for it to be misused and abused as a means of depriving people of their rights. To treat it as anything other than a weapon is to trivialize the power that it permits the user to wield.

Having said that, I still believe that both the police and the community would be better served by having Tasers available as an alternative to pistols, under suitably appropriate regulation.

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