EDITORIAL THURSDAY 18.06.09.
Once more the controversy over the introduction of Taser stun guns has taken another twist. It has now emerged that the man who died last week in Queensland had been shot with the Taser 28 times. It is not clear as yet why that occurred, with some suggesting that the weapon somehow malfunctioned. Others, including the manufacturer, claim that such a malfunction is extremely unlikely. Either way it would seem to demonstrate once again that this is a dangerous weapon which is not to be taken lightly. Once again it demonstrates that it is a mistake to think of the Taser as a “non-lethal” device.
Queensland police have suspended the rollout of Tasers while the incident is further investigated, but have not withdrawn the 1200 units already in use in that state. They believe that on balance Tasers actually save lives because in many cases dramatic confrontations have been resolved when hostile individuals have backed down at the mere sight of the weapon, without it even being used. On other occasions when it has been use, quite clearly the outcome has usually been less catastrophic than it would have been if a gun had been used instead. They argue that, even if there is some risk with using a Taser, it is substantially outweighed by the benefits of defusing violent confrontations.
Of course, as I have said on previous occasions, it should be obvious that a Taser is less likely to cause permanent injury or death than a pistol, and as such there is a legitimate argument in favour of providing them to police as an alternative to firearms. But once again, that is precisely the point. They are an alternative for lethal force, but should not be thought of as harmless or without risk. They are still dangerous weapons and must be handled as such, otherwise the risk is that a culture of carelessness could develop where the casual use of the weapons could become accepted. In that way, while they are generally not lethal, the threat they pose is actually quite insidious, having the potential to promote abuses of power against the powerless.
While last week’s incident is still under investigation, the fact that the Taser was discharged into the individual 28 times could well indicate an abuse of the power of the weapon. If so, it demonstrates the danger of making the assumption that the instrument is safe, and disregarding any concerns about excessive use. And even if that is not the case here, the alternative explanation of a malfunction is still a stark warning that the Taser should not be considered “non-lethal” or “harmless”. It proves that there is still not enough known about the true extent of the dangers and risks presented by the use of this dangerous weapon.
Police are quite right when they say that Tasers can save lives. But for that to be true, it is of the greatest importance that proper protocols and safeguards are enforced to prevent any misuse or abuse of the weapon, or the power that it confers on its user. That means it must be considered to be on the same level as any other dangerous and potentially fatal weapon. Anything less is an open invitation to disaster.