3 Deaths 8 Days: the use of TASERs

The debate on the use of so called ‘less lethal’ methods of force by police has come to the fore again this week in the wake of the deaths of three members of the public subjected to the use of TASERs and pepper spray. So are these weapons potential life savers or life takers?

Although TASER use was only widely sanctioned across the United Kingdom in 2008 Taser technology has actually been around since the late sixties, early seventies. The American government at that time indicated its intention to explore technologies for establishing control of violent confrontations without the injuries that were all to obvious in the student riots on campus in that era. One of their government think tanks was directed to explore the issue of electronic weaponry designed to interfere with the electrical impulses within the body. The commonly used version looks like a handgun and uses compressed nitrogen canisters to project a pair of darts towards a suspect. When these are embedded in a person, the Taser delivers a 50,000v electric shock through wires connecting the darts to the handheld device. The 19 pulses of electricity per second stimulate nerves that control muscles and are designed not to affect the heart. The shocks make a person’s muscles rigid, dropping them to the ground.All police in the UK have been able to use the devices since 2008, after a limited field trial in 10 forces. Since their introduction Tasers have been used in around 6,000 incidents across the UK while in Northern Ireland TASERs have been deployed a total of 28 times by the PSNI.

CS incapacitant spray  was discovered by two Americans, Ben Carson and Roger Staughton in 1928 and is used as a temporary incapacitant, to subdue attackers, or persons who are violently aggressive, by many police forces. The Policing Board which oversees the PSNI, endorsed the introduction of CS spray by the PSNI on July 1st 2004. It was first used ten days later and deployed a total of 60 times during the first six  months primarily in street situations late on weekend nights. Although it is intended as a targeted response in 20% of incidents police were affected by the use of CS spray and in 12 incidents members of the public suffered the results of cross contamination of the spray. However during the same period the use of batons was reduced by 28% so is it a case of pitching one form of force against another?

In Northern Ireland those subjected by the use of force by CS or TASER have so far lived to tell the tale but an increasing number of deaths worldwide highlights that this isn’t always the case. Direct links between the deaths and the effects of the TASERs themselves, however, have not been proven.  Arguably such weapons have the potential to allow police to provide targeted intervention in situations where the life or lives of people are in jeopardy.  Amnesty International have however long been opposed to the use of so called ‘less lethal’ forms of weaponry by criminal justice agencies because of their potentially lethal outcomes and in particular oppose their roll out to ordinary police as opposed to trained tactical units. A 2008 report by Amnesty International, which looked at the use of Tasers in US law enforcement, said it was recognised that the strong muscle contractions from Taser shocks can cause “injuries, including sprain-type injuries and compression fractures. Some of these concerns came to light when officers were injured during training, and warnings about such injuries are now included in Taser International’s product warning bulletins. The warnings note that such injuries are more likely to occur in people with pre-existing conditions such as osteoporosis or muscle, bone or joint damage.”

Closer to home in the United Kingdom there have been four deaths linked to the use of TASERs and pepper spray including the most recent three cases. We await the outcome of investigations by the Independent Police Complaints Commission as to whether the force used was legitimate and proportionate. However the information released in relation to two of the cases don’t appear to be situations where there was a serious risk to life.  Dale Burns, 27, died after being subjected to shocks from a TASER gun and pepper spray when police were called to his flat in Cumbria last week where they attempted to arrest him on suspicion of criminal damage. Jacob Michael, 25, died on Monday after being pepper sprayed during his arrest by 11 officers in Widnes, Cheshire for alleged affray. The third case is wholly ironic in that deadly force was apparently used to prevent a  person from harming themselves. Initial reports suggest Philip Hulmes, 53, was hit by a Taser after refusing to leave his terraced house in Over Hulton, near Bolton on Tuesday night. It is understood that his daughter had called the police after he locked himself inside his house while in possession of a knife and began to harm himself. Greater Manchester police said when officers arrived they were threatened by the man and a decision was made to “deploy the Taser”.”Following that, it became quite obvious the man had serious stab wounds to his stomach,” a spokesman said.

A 2011 study for the US department of justice on “conducted energy devices” (CEDs) challenged research by the Heart Society and concluded that there was “no conclusive medical evidence in the current body of research literature that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death to humans from the direct or indirect cardiovascular or metabolic effects of short-term CED exposure in healthy, normal, non-stressed, non-intoxicated persons…” The reality is however that in situations where there is deemed to be a serious risk to life it is unlikely that the potential perpetrator fits the billing of ‘a healthy, normal, non-stressed, non-intoxicated person’. Taser International says that the use of the device is not risk free, but it adds on its website: “Independent medical and scientific experts have determined Taser devices to be a safer response to resistance option compared to traditional use-of-force tools.” It also advises police on how to use the technology more safely: “Although recent studies … do not find evidence of substantial risk of cardiac arrhythmias with CED use, it is advisable to avoid discharges directly to the chest when practicable.”Similarly, it is advisable to avoid prolonged discharges of greater than 15 seconds.”

The question with many of these issues is often where do we draw the line? On the 22nd of February 2011 in Lakewood Colorado, the same school district where the Columbine massacre took place, police used pepper spray to subdue an 8 year old boy who was throwing a violent tantrum in his classroom. A step too far?