Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/09/taser_study_clean_bill_of_health/

US study says Taser cattleprod guns are safe

Do tase me, bro, if you are so inclined

By Lewis Page

Posted in Law, 9th October 2007 12:19 GMT

American medical researchers have concluded that Tasers, the controversial cattleprod-launching stun weapons, are broadly safe to use.

The study, funded by the US Justice Department, analysed almost 1,000 cases where American plods meted out electric enforcement, and found that 99.7 per cent of the sufferers were unharmed or suffered no more than scrapes or bruises. Three subjects required hospital treatment: two for head injuries sustained after falling down, and one for a rare muscle condition called rhabdomyolysis. The researchers could not say whether the rhabdomyolysis onset was related to the earlier electric shock.

According to Dr William Bozeman, who led the research: "This is the largest independent study to date, and the first to detail the medical effects of Tasers under real-world conditions.

"This study promises to give us the best information yet on the medical risks of these weapons."

Previous data related only to healthy police volunteers or animals, rather than people shocked in operational situations.

Tasers somewhat resemble normal bullet-firing pistols. However, they work by launching two sharp contacts at the target. When the barbs make contact with skin, a 50,000 volt electric shock is delivered from a battery in the gun butt down thin wires which trail from the flying barbs. A taser can be fired only once per reload, though a target once hit can be shocked repeatedly as long as the barbs remain in contact. Range is very limited, even compared to normal handguns; hits cannot be reliably made with a Taser from more than a few metres, and the wires are only 10.6m long.

Advocates of Tasers point out that police trying to subdue a violently-resisting suspect have a limited range of options. If the person is unarmed and outnumbered by the cops, they can try to deal with him (nearly always him) barehanded. This is dangerous for both police and suspect, and can be expected to lead to serious injuries in a lot of cases. It's especially dangerous for modern British coppers now that recruiting by size* and sex has been abolished.

Alternative tactics for the cops include the use of clubs, truncheons etc (more injuries for the suspect, less for the cops). They may also use Mace, pepper spray or whatever - though this may lead to medical complications and accusations just as a Taser does, and effective range is even worse.

Where the offender has a knife, club, bottle or other potential hurty implement, it could seem highly unfair to insist that coppers must still wade in with nothing more than a truncheon or a tin of liquid condiment. However, in the past the only other option they had was firearms, and shooting someone for waving a knife or an iron bar is often seen as excessive in retrospect. Police image is usually further damaged by witless Hollywood-inspired notions that people can realistically be shot in the leg, arm etc. to be subdued. (They can't, except perhaps by snipers when standing still and unaware of being targeted, which would normally be highly illegal. Anyway, being shot in a limb is still quite likely to kill or cripple.)

Hence the Taser, which seems to offer the plods a much better chance of cuffing a violent troublemaker without inflicting any more than temporary pain and maybe a few bruises.

In the UK, Tasers were initially issued only to specialist police firearms officers, who are usually described as "highly trained". (This despite the fact that they have been known to use Tasers against suspects thought to be carrying electrically-initiated bombs.)

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.