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US study says Taser cattleprod guns are safe

Do tase me, bro, if you are so inclined

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Originally the cattleprod pistols were to be used by UK cops only against armed opponents, a rather mad stance in some ways (only the bravest of plods could be expected to tackle a gun-toting villain with a one-shot weapon boasting effective range of three or four metres). In due course, the firearms cops were allowed to use Tasers in all situations where extreme violence seemed to be on the cards. Now, plans are underway to let police without firearms training use the weapons.

There is strong opposition to the use of Tasers, however. Campaign groups such as Amnesty International point to a long history of electroshock weapons being used as a means of torture. The group has often cited cases in America where cops have shocked people even after they had been handcuffed or otherwise restrained, in defiance of police rules. Amnesty's position is unequivocal; that Taser use should be suspended:

"Amnesty International called on all US police departments and authorities to suspend their deployment of tasers pending a rigorous, independent inquiry... For those departments who continue to deploy tasers, Amnesty International has called for their use to be strictly limited to situations where there is an immediate threat of death or serious injury, which cannot be contained by lesser means, and where a police officer would otherwise resort to firearms to protect life."

The Justice Department study doesn't seem to have been independent enough for Amnesty, as the Guardian reports today that the organisation remains opposed to the UK cops' plan for wider Taser issue.

It's quite possible to argue that Tasers encourage police to mistreat people, as it is easier to shock someone than - for instance - administer a pressure-point hold, thumblock etc. (which may or may not be equally painful, but is certainly excruciating and just as unlikely to leave marks).

One might just as well suggest, however, that coppers mistreating suspects is not just a Taser-related issue. Quite apart from plods having a fair quotient of bad apples among them, only the best of us - having perhaps been punched, bitten, kicked, spat on, vomited on etc. during the course of an arrest - would be completely free of any urge for retribution in the aftermath.

Tasers, in fact, would seem to offer more chances to detect and punish abuses by enraged or simply malevolent plods, not less. The latest models have options for data logging of every shock administered, and they also scatter unique barcoded confetti markers every time they get fired. If a copper goes wrong with a Taser, it may be possible to bring him to justice as a result. If on the other hand he indulges in some old-school torture - for instance an unjustified flick with a truncheon to the groin area, insufficient to bruise but sufficient to agonise - well, you'll struggle to prove that afterwards.

Perhaps a Taser-cam recording system might be a good idea, too - or simply one attached to the policeman. Such things are already available, in fact, and have led to successful prosecutions (pdf).(But not yet of any policemen.)

But hey - new technology's always bad, right? It was better in the old days, when it was the copper's often-fabricated word against yours and all he had was a fist, a boot, a club - or a gun.®

*Many British police forces had height requirements for recruits into the 1990s. These were found especially troublesome in the modern era as they effectively acted as ethnic barriers.

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