Now is the time to abolish tasers

Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 5:20 p.m.

The taser is a deadly weapon and should be banned.

A taser, also known as a stun gun, is a hand-held device that fires two jumper-cable-type probes that attach to a person up to 35 feet away. It sends a charge of 50,000 volts to the body and demobilizes its subject.

The weapon is used by nearly 12,000 of the 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in America, according to Thomas P. Smith, chairman of the board and co-founder of the manufacturer Taser International, in a recent interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm. Of these, 4,000 agencies provide a taser for every officer, he said.

According to Amnesty International, 291 people have been killed by police tasers in the United States since 2001, though the manufacturer denies there is a direct link.

Amnesty is concerned that tasers are being used as a routine tool of law enforcement, rather than as a weapon of last resort. It says the vast majority of people killed by tasers were unarmed and posed no danger to police.

‘‘We notice that a lot of the people who are shot with this weapon and subsequently die are mentally ill, are under the influence of narcotics, alcohol or illicit drugs,’’ says Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty International USA’s domestic human rights program. ‘‘Many of the people who have problems seem to be elderly or very young, and that really raised some important concerns for us.’’

What’s more, police often use the weapon recklessly. Officers subjected 92 people to between three and 21 shocks. One man died after being electro-shocked for 57 continuous seconds.

The rate of death appears to be increasing. In one week in November alone, four people died in the United States after being hit by tasers.

Canada has had its problems with the controversial weapon as well. In September, Claudio Castagnetta, a 32-year-old Italian, died in a Quebec City jail after he was jolted with a taser while allegedly having a psychotic episode.

In October, a 40-year-old Robert Dziekanski, who spoke only Polish, died after being shocked twice by a taser at Vancouver International Airport.

And in November, Howard Hyde, a 45-year-old paranoid schizophrenic man, died in a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, jail 30 hours after being tasered by police.

This prompted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to announce a shift in policy regarding tasers on Dec. 14. The new policy severely restricts their use.

But no such restriction, much less a ban, is in effect in the United States.

Last month, the U.N. Committee on Torture said that the use of tasers ‘‘constituted a form of torture.’’

Police cannot fight crime at the expense of our human rights or our lives. Tasers should be removed from all police stations in the country.

Jumper cables should be used on cars, not on people.

David A. Love is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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