A year ago this month, Amnesty International released a report about Tasers, high-tech guns that are deployed as a “nonlethal” alternative to the use of firearms with live ammunition. The Taser has become a hot commodity for use by law-enforcement organizations across the country.
The report concluded that “rather than minimizing the use of force as intended, [Tasers] may dangerously extend the boundaries of what are considered ‘acceptable’ levels of force.” As it turns out, Taser guns—which fire at a target with 50,000 volts of electricity—are being routinely used as a way to subdue people who often do not pose a serious threat to themselves or anyone.
Based on its research, Amnesty called for suspended use of the weapons, pending an “urgent, rigorous, independent and impartial inquiry” into their use and effects.
Well, big surprise—it’s a year later, and no such urgent inquiry has been launched.
Yes, a few studies are under way. (And, incidentally, the stock price of the company that manufactures Tasers has plummeted.) But actual use of the devices by officers has increased—especially in Sacramento.
Sasha Abramsky’s story “50,000 volts” explores the matter with a focus on local deaths that would not have occurred if Tasers had been left in their holsters. Indeed, these deaths have made Sacramento a hotspot for this controversy internationally. Meanwhile, Abramsky’s story also makes it clear that people with heart problems or neurological diseases can be especially vulnerable to Tasers and that officers often have no way of knowing whether someone they are considering Tasering suffers from such conditions.
It is true, of course, that law-enforcement personnel often have to make split-second decisions and that civilians can’t understand the pressure that comes when death is a potential consequence of any action. But even this does not excuse the use of Tasers in situations that seem clearly not to merit their operation.
Some of those who have lost loved ones to “nonlethal” Tasers have filed lawsuits. Ultimately, the courts may be the place where this battle gets joined.