Tasers were initially developed as an ‘alternative to lethal force,’ and a means of assisting police to deal with violent incidents, but a spate of Taser-related deaths both in Australia and overseas has cast doubt about how harmless they really are.
In February this year, a 37-year-old woman died in an American prison after being stunned four times with a Taser. According to police reports, Natasha McKenna had been resisting officers when she was tasered. She stopped breathing as a result and died in hospital, with an autopsy report revealing the cause of death as:
‘excited delirium associated with physical restraint including use of conductive energy device, contributing: Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar Disorder.’
McKenna’s death adds to a rising number of fatalities associated with Taser use; and with independent research about their health impacts scant, many are calling for stricter guidelines when it comes to discharging electroshock weapons.
How Do Tasers Work?
Tasers work by discharging an electrical current – either through two electrical probes released from a cartridge, or by applying the device directly to the person (also known as ‘drive stun’ mode). Drive stun mode is generally considered to be more dangerous and painful, and is therefore not recommended unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ arise.
The powerful electrical current penetrates muscle fibres, causing them to contract, and interrupting the signals carried between the brain and muscles. If discharged successfully, the device will usually cause a person to lose control of their muscles; preventing them from reacting violently towards others and rendering them more vulnerable to arrest.
Tasers are typically used by police and other law enforcement officers as an alternative to firearms to restrain a suspect. Those who support their use say that they have reduced the number of deaths and injuries to police, members of the public and suspects, with Taser International CEO Rich Smith claiming they have saved over 75,000 lives since their introduction in 1994.
When Can Tasers Be Used By Police?
Strict guidelines have been developed for the use of tasers in Australia. In New South Wales, for example, Tasers can only be discharged, after a ‘proper assessment of the situation and environment, in order to:
- Protect human life;
- Protect an officer or others where violent confrontation or violent resistance is occurring or imminent;
- Protect an officer in danger of being overpowered, or to protect themselves or another person from the risk of actual bodily harm; or
- For protection from animals.
Police guidelines also state that Taser use is discretional, and an assessment must be made by the discharging officer as to whether the use of the device ‘is the best option for the situation having regard to the Criteria to Discharge a Taser and the
Taser training they have received.’ They must also consider legal guidelines regarding the use of force which are contained in the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA).
Yet despite these strict guidelines, there have been several instances of Australian police having failed to properly assess situations – with fatal consequences.
Perhaps the most notable case is that of Roberto Laudisio, a 21-year-old Brazilian student who died after being Tasered by police fourteen times in 2012. Laudisio was reportedly acting erratically whilst under the influence of LSD and stole a packet of biscuits from a convenience store, leading to a police chase down Pitt Street in the Sydney CBD before being pinned down and repeatedly Tasered.
Police were heavily criticised for using excessive force during Laudisio’s arrest, and after a recommendation by the Police Integrity Commission, four officers were charges with assault.
But while an inquest found that Police used the highly dangerous ‘drive-stun mode’ seven times and discharged three cans of capsicum spray during the incident, no single cause of death could be identified; leaving the police involved to be acquitted.
Statistics show that between 2002 and 2012, there were six Taser-related deaths in Australia – including that of Roberto Laudisio.
A recent report by the NSW Ombudsman found that while police complied with Taser use guidelines the majority of the time, they breached these guidelines in 14% of cases over a two year period. Over a quarter of these incidents involved police using
Tasers ‘in either probe or drive-stun mode when they should not have been.’
Are They Harmful?
While Taser International – the company which manufactures the device – claims that it is a safe alternative to firearms, medical experts aren’t so sure.
Studies have revealed that the effect of Tasering depends on a person’s health, whether they have any drugs or alcohol in their system, and how many times they are shocked.
Scientists have also found that the electrical shock can affect a person’s natural heart rhythms, potentially causing them to experience cardiac arrest.
There is also evidence that Taser use impairs neurocognitive functioning in the short term – which, in turn, affects a person’s interactions with police and their ability to ‘say something incriminating that he or she might not otherwise have said.’