Tasers Are the New Killers: Watch Their Popularity Surge!

As protesters descend upon London's financial district to demonstrate the G-20 summit this week, they are being met by thousands of Metropolitan police officers carrying out what has repeatedly been described as the biggest police operation ever undertaken in the capital. Pre-emptive arrests were made earlier this week and despite the mainly nonviolent protests -- overshadowed by media reports of a "seige" on the Bank of England -- by Wednesday night, more than 60 people had been arrested and one man was dead.

Police in London have been gearing up for these clashes for months, attracting press attention for the “unprecedented” security deployment and the various tools at their disposal. Among them are so-called "non-lethal weapons" of the sort that have become biquitous crowd control devices. "Scotland Yard is to deploy officers armed with 50,000-volt Taser stun guns to deal with violent demonstrators," the Times Online reported earlier this week, noting that police were gearing up for any "anarchist elements" "likely to stir up trouble."

Months after the Republican National Convention in the U.S., such sweeping security measures may seem to be par for the course. But in the UK -- where police forces have traditionally not carried guns -- it was not that long ago that Tasers were new to the streets. Since their arrival in the spring of 2003, however, their popularity has skyrocketed; last fall, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith unveiled a plan to spend £8 million on Tasers and Taser training for 30,000 police officers, providing some 10,000 new Tasers to police across England and Wales. "I am proud that we have one of the few police services around the world that do not regularly carry firearms," Smith said, "and I want to keep it that way." But an arms expert at Amnesty International UK called the move "a dangerous step in British policing," citing "numerous" taser deaths in North America as a cautionary example.

Meanwhile in the U.S., such fatalities continue. Last month, a Michigan teenager died after police tasered him, one day short of his 16th birthday.

It would be preposterous at this point for anyone with access to the news media to claim that Tasers are the safe policing tools they are marketed as. Yet Taser International, the corporation that makes them, continues to market this dangerous -- and lucrative -- myth. On March 31, the company's latest Taser model -- called the Shockwave -- hit the market; according to Taser International website, it "allows for both increased safety and stand-off capability during hostile situations, minimizing risk with a stand-off distance of up to 100 meters." But as Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty International’s USA Program focusing on domestic human rights, wrote about the product last fall, the Shockwave "belongs in my 'You've Got to Be Kidding' file along with Taser International's leopard-print MP3 player that doubles as a taser and their employment of Playboy Bunnies for promotion." The company's literature shows it to be a powerful crowd-control weapon:

"With the push of a button at a stand-off distance of up to 100 meters, the Shockwave unit deploys multiple standard TASER® cartridges that are oriented across an area arc. Full area coverage is provided to instantaneously incapacitate multiple personnel within that region."

"Development of weapons that allow police to tase en mass is not good news," says Hashad. " ... Would you be willing to go to a protest knowing that police on the scene were armed with Taser Shockwave? I wouldn't bring my daughter, which means that I might have to stay home. Maybe that's the point."

It is not clear what model of Taser London police are using at the G20 summit. But with the UK embracing Taser technology, it is only a matter of time before the kinds of fatalities seen regularly in North America start showing up across the Atlantic. The company doesn’t seem concerned, though. The British version of Taser International's website, www.taser.co.uk, boasts: "0% long term injury. 94% success rate."

Taser use is down in Canada

One place where the Taser trend actually appears to be changing is Canada, where high-profile taser deaths, along with a recent study on the dangers of Tasers, are leading to a serious rethinking of the weapon. Four months after a Canadian report found that the type of Taser model most often used by police officers can significantly raise the risk of cardiac arrest -- prompting Canadian officials to say they were pulling the model from its police ranks -- Taser use in Canada has decreased dramatically. Last week Reuters reported that the "use of Taser stun guns by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) dropped by almost a third last year, possibly because of a high-profile controversy about the weapon's safety and accusations the gun was being over-used."

The official who released the numbers, who heads the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, told reporters in a press conference that Canadian authorities are showing more "self-restraint" when it comes to deploying tasers -- while also suggesting that suspects are less likely to resist police officers for fear of being tasered to death. "People now recognize that the Taser is painful and that Taser -- maybe they're thinking -- may kill me, and they're co-operating too," said Paul Kennedy of the RCMP, a government agency that, according to Reuters, "is expected to issue a more comprehensive report on Taser use" in coming days.

This is pretty unsatisfying for people who would like to see a ban on Tasers -- or at least a moratorium until their safety can be guaranteed (a dubious prospect). More importantly, in the meantime, allowing Tasers to occupy a gray area -- not lethal except when they are -- will make it that much harder for police to be held accountable for excessive force and homicide. Cops already get away with shooting suspects dead with little to no consequences. Arming them with Tasers under the pretense that they are safe will only perpetuate this trend as inevitable deaths occur.

Like "pre-emptive" arrests, the 50,000-volt Tasers that London police are carrying as they stand off with G20 protesters this week may be seen as a necessary precaution. But the past several years have shown the slippery slope governments create in the name of security. Any Taser deaths in London this week will be treated as a tragic accident, to be sure. But they should not be treated as a surprise.


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