Shooting to kill: time to rethink the Taser?

The recent death of a Brazilian student stunned by a Taser has failed to change perspectives on Tasers as non-lethal alternatives to guns, writes Eleanor Gordon-Smith. The question is not whether they quell crime. For guns, too, quell crime. The question is whether they are truthfully a non-lethal alternative to handgun use.

Roberto Laudisio Curti died shortly before sunrise after he had been sprayed with capsicum spray and tasered. He was 21 years old, having come to Australia from Brazil to study English, and he was suspected of stealing a packet of biscuits.

Curti is at least the fifth Taser-related death in Australia. In June 2009 Antonio Galeano, from Brandon, Queensland, died after he was tasered 28 times when police responded to a disturbance at his girlfriend’s house.

Our more retributive cousins in the United States are already streets ahead. According to Amnesty International, police use of Tasers has contributed to over 500 deaths in the US. Among that number is the case of Kelly Thomas.

On 10 July 2005, the parents of 37-year old Thomas knew they had no choice but to turn off their son’s life support. Thomas was a diagnosed schizophrenic living on the streets of Fullerton, California. Five days earlier he had been tasered, and then bashed to a pulp, by uniformed officers of the Fullerton Police Department. Witnesses say he was tasered five times before the vicious assault began. It is difficult to know for sure whether the repeated electric shocks impeded his body’s ability to withstand and recover from the beating, but it seems possible.

Before any further discussion about the merits of Tasers, it’s worth clearing up the facts.

First, “Taser” is not a term for a weapon. It is the patented, trademarked product of a company called Taser International Inc. – a NASDAQ corporation with an average annual income of US$102 million. In its early days, the Taser was known rather more untidily as the “Advanced Taser Electro-Muscular Disruption System”. Taser International Inc. is the Microsoft of the stun gun market – only, Microsoft before Apple got good. Theirs is the only stun gun worth having.

Stun guns work by pressing a pair of electrodes against the victim’s body such that an electric circuit is created. Before the Taser, stun guns followed a model somewhat like a cattle prod; a police officer would have to be in close proximity to the victim, at maximum arm’s length away. Taser revolutionised the market by attaching the electrodes to long, plastic-coated wires, and discharging those wires with pressurised carbon dioxide. Thus was born the first long-range stun gun. Tasers can be used from almost 20 feet away, trumping any competitor for usefulness in a raucous crowd, or when a suspect flees the scene.Once the Spiderman-tendril electrodes have hit their target, three barbs lodge in the victim’s skin and discharge about 50, 000 volts. The current can continue for as long as an officer holds down the trigger.

This level of shock warps the functioning of the central nervous system. You’ll have seen the cartoonified version on Family Guy, and it’s not that far from the truth – every muscle in the body contracts, causing temporary paralysis, terrible pain, and in almost all cases an immediate collapse followed by twitches and exhaustion.

Tasers – in the registered trademark sense of the word – are now standard equipment to most police forces in Australia. They’re carried on weapon belts, in patrol cars, and in some states private security guards can carry a Taser. They are, notionally at least, meant to be deployed by officers to protect people from violence. Before the Taser, the procedure in the face of a violent suspect was to use “lethal force” – a police-speak euphemism for a bullet, discharged very quickly from a handgun.

Tasers are now used as part of policing in every Australian state. Taser use in NSW rose 1000 per cent between 2008 and 2010.

So they’re a ‘non-lethal’ weapon. A non-lethal weapon, as Institute of Public Affairs Research Fellow Chris Berg put it, that kills people. Curti was not the first and he will not be the last.

What is it about Taser use that makes it lethal?

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Any kind of exposure to high-voltage can cause cardiac arrhythmia, which can lead to a heart attack, or ventricular fibrillation, which leads to cardiac arrest and/or death. Anatomically, it’s not unlike being struck by lightning. The problem is that some subjects are more susceptible to these health consequences than others – and it’s very difficult to identify on sight who’s likely to be at risk.

An inquiry into Taser use in Western Australia found that the risk of death increases “when a Taser weapon is used on the young, the elderly, people with an existing health condition, drug users and the mentally ill”. The risk also increases when the subject experiences a high level of adrenaline saturation – as might be considered likely in subjects being pursued by armed police.

One obvious problem with this arises. If you’re full of alcohol and drugs, you’re more likely to die from being tasered, because your heart and central nervous system are already jacked up. But if you’re full of alcohol and drugs, you’re more likely to resist arrest and less likely to be subdued quickly by non-violent means – and therefore more likely to be tasered in the first place.

The fact that tasers kill people with heart and lung problems also affects Indigenous people – who are twice as likely than their Caucasian counterparts to experience chronic heart and lung problems. In light of the revelation that more than 20 per cent of Taser deployments have been against Indigenous people, this is understandably problematic.

More gruesome still is the second way Tasers have been known to kill. Like most electric devices, Tasers can ignite flammable materials. Hair and skin are fairly flammable. In 2010, according to WA Aboriginal Legal Service’s Dennis Eggington, several Taser attacks on Indigenous people included a man who was tasered between the eyes and caught on fire. All stun guns, Tasers included, have been described by The United Nations Committee Against Torture as “a form of torture that can kill”.

This seems to be recognised by those in the business as well as leftist civil libertarians. A memorandum from the US Army discourages shocking soldiers with Tasers in training. The memorandum stated: “seizures can be induced by the electric current,” and said that “given the potential risks” the weapons ought not to be used in training.

Police officers in five different US states have filed lawsuits against Taser International claiming they sustained serious injuries after experiencing Taser shocks during training. Among their complaints were heart damage, strokes, multiple spinal fractures, hearing and vision loss and neurological damage.
There’s a third group more likely to experience long term harm from tasering: the mentally ill. It’s common for people with cognitive or behavioural disorders to resist instruction – of any sort, not just from the police. This is a problem when “failure to comply” is deemed just cause to deploy a Taser. No police officer can tell at sight whether failure to comply is the product of intentional disobedience, or a failure to understand and reason at an adult level. A five-year study in Victoria found 85 per cent of Taser victims suffered a mental illness. Any weapon used against non-compliers is open to this problem of deployment: consider the implications when involving a weapon which, despite labels to the contrary, kills.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the nameless statistics, but a young person’s death can spark a movement. When life is extinguished so early and needlessly, people pay attention. Trayvon Martin and Mohamed Bouazizi taught us that, Roberto Curti is going to teach us that. His death sparked calls for inquiries into Taser practices and corporate regulation. But this is not the first premature death, and ours is not the first inquiry into Tasers. Back in 2008, Robert Dziekanski was killed by a Taser in Vancouver, launching the Braidwood Public Inquiry into Taser use. Taser International CEO, Tom Smith, appeared at the inquiry and conceded that “the use of Tasers is not risk-free.”

But this is a company; it has stocks, shareholders, and laws to abide by. How does it deal with the implication that its product kills? It is unsurprising that Taser International does not accept this fact. Taser International needs police forces and governments to regard its product as an alternative to lethal force. If it turns out that it kills, it loses market share.

In 2008, Taser International successfully lobbied a US judge into issuing the order that the word “Taser” be removed from the autopsies of three men, who all died after being shocked with the stun gun. The action was described by the then-president of the National Association of Medical Examiners as “dangerously close to intimidation”.

The company has also been a driving force behind the introduction of the term “excited delirium”. Excited delirium is a state of nervous-system elevation that can lead to death – it is not a term found in any medical dictionary and it is not recognised by the American Medical Association. Almost all recorded cases of a death from “excited delirium” have occurred after Taser use. It may well be that excited delirium causes death – but it also looks a lot like Tasers are the only cause of excited delirium.

Aside from this justification, Taser International has also been involved in the hassling of doctors who testify against their product. Dr. Zian Tseng, a San Francisco cardiologist and electro-physiologist, once testified that any healthy person could die from a Taser attack, provided the jolt came to the right part of the chest. Tseng said that when he made his research findings public, Taser International contacted him to ask him to reconsider his statements to the media, and offered to pay him hefty grants in return.

These questions on a global scale undoubtedly warrant answers, but back in NSW, a young man is still dead, and this decidedly lethal weapon is still billed as the opposite.

Will the politicians move on this? It’s unlikely – although David Shoebridge, a Greens member of the NSW Legislative Council, has called for Taser use to be suspended. “It was really – with the number of Taser uses here that we’ve seen in the last few years – almost inevitable that we will see more deaths caused by police Taser use,” Shoebridge said. But Liberal O’Farrell government expresses no such reservations, not even in light of this recent killing by a non-lethal weapon.

O’Farrell said of Curti’s death: “I say to any country and to the citizens of any country, Australian law is rigorous, Australian law is independent of government interference and Australian law, 99.99 per cent of the time, gets it absolutely right.” That statistic is questionable in its accuracy, but more concerning is the fact that Curti’s painful death has not dampened NSW police plans to acquire a new, extra powerful, “double shot” Taser, which allows for rapid fire without the need to reload barbs.
It can truthfully be said that Tasers correlate to reduced violent crime. Across the board, rates of violent crime are down, resistance of arrest is down, disorderly conduct is down, and violence towards police officers is down in every state that uses Tasers. But correlation does not necessarily equate to causation.

Moreover the question is not whether they quell crime. For guns, too, quell crime. The question is whether they are truthfully a non-lethal alternative to handgun use.

It has already been mentioned that Taser use in NSW rose 1000 per cent between 2008 and 2010. The salient point here is not just the size of the increase, but what that increase’s impact has been on the other weapon habits of police. The dramatic increase in Taser use has not led to a comparable reduction in the use of handguns. For Tasers to provide an alternative to lethal force, they have to be used in situations where previously handguns would have been – yet handgun usage has remained static pre and post the introduction of Tasers.

Tasers control crime, unquestionably. Yet perhaps what makes them even more dangerous than guns is that they discriminate in terms of harm, with the already victimised and unwell more likely to die from an encounter with a Taser.

And for a non-lethal weapon, Tasers kill a lot of people.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith is on Twitter: @TheRealEGS