What's the Problem with Taser?

| About: TASER International, (TASR)

A few decades ago, Canada did away with the death penalty. The reasons vary from “inhumane for a modern society” to “what if we put an innocent person to death?”. Why then, with that backdrop, are we arming police forces, campus cops and hospital security staff with Tasers?

If the setting requires life-threatening/protective action, sidearms are mandatory. That’s why police and armored car officers are issued them (sensibly, border guards will soon have them as well). If shots are fired, the officer will need to demonstrate why he/she needed to use what was known to be life-threatening force in that specific situation. If it was negligent use, an officer might lose their job or even go to jail.

As for the “humane” Taser, it seems to be doing more high profile accidental killing of late than I’ve heard about involving police handguns for many years. As the Taser is billed as a non-life threatening tool, officers invariably don’t have the same post-event critical review that would follow an accidential death resulting from using their sidearm.

The news report out of Vancouver’s International Airport that an agitated man died after being subdued with a Taser brings to mind the distraught mother who died in a police cell at the Phoenix Airport three weeks ago (See my post “Airports can be deadly,“ September 30, 2007). What is it about airports that have turned them into such dangerous places?

This is from a recent Canaccord’s Morning Coffee research department note:

TASER International (TASR:NASDAQ) ($17.56), Net Change: -0.29, % Change: -1.62%, Volume: 1,817,618

Even Shatner could switch his phaser to “stun” from “kill.” Canadian police are still trying to work out why a distressed passenger with an “eastern European language” died in the airport after being blasted by a stun-gun twice. Gee whiz, care to guess what killed him? Hit: it wasn’t our famous B.C. crisp air that did it. The man was likely Polish, as there was a flight from that country within an hour of incident (don’t ask Vancouver’s famously ignorant customs officers to recognize a language.

They ask the stupidest questions of any airport on earth. “Did you go for business or vacation?” Ah, like it says on the card, vacation. “Why did you go on vacation?” Ah, because I don’t spend by holidays playing Playstation in my parents’ basement like you do. “Did you stay at a resort when you were in Mexico City or Havana?” Ah, there are no resorts in Mexico City or Havana, etc). How is this for an ingenious statement from the head of the RCMP: “Based on our review of the B.C. coroner’s service and past cases where individuals have died following the use of a Taser, what we’ve seen is they are usually due to a pre-existing medical condition or the use or abuse of legal or illegal drugs [ed. note: since you can’t slander a dead person, why not suggest the guy might have been stoned before the Taser jolted him to death?]. The Tasers have not contributed to the actual death.”

It’s a bit like claiming that a heat wave isn’t responsible for killing old people as they have pre-existing conditions that were the culprit. To prove it, most old people don’t die in such conditions, right? Nonsense. Long-term, is there a risk that Tasers will either be banned or some other, more ethical, retraining approach will replace it? Yes.”

Is it just me or does the propensity for deaths at airports not seem to be a post September 11th phenom? As for the Taser, why do our police forces need them? For decades, if not centuries, police and peace officers seemed to do just fine with a billy club, a nightstick or a baton. What changed with the advent of the stun gun that made other non-lethal methods of subduing a subject suddenly less useful than they’d been for generations?

I’m all for technology advancements, but if this thing was a piece of medical equipment, rather than a tool for a jury free-instant execution of suspected wrong-doers, it would have been banned by the FDA (or similar) long ago. Unfortunately, public sentiment appears to be such that anyone being Tasered by someone in uniform is immediately assumed to have done something to have deserved that particular use of force. Should they die from the experience, no one marches in the streets. “Unfortunate”, is all newsreaders might say on the nightly news.

If it had been a summary execution by the hangman, public outcry would end it after the first instance. Despite a pattern of bad outcomes, and dozens of bizarre deaths later, and North American security and police personnel are turning to Tasers in ever larger numbers.

There are certainly defenders of the tool, both medical and in uniform. The key argument being that using a Taser is less likely to cause serious injury than a sidearm, which might be the only other alternative in certain situations. A 2005 B.C. Police-authored Report on Taser suitability puts this theory squarely on the table. My favourite line was this, however:

Phoenix Police Department, one of the first major American agencies to equip all of its line officers with TASERs, now prohibits training exposures.

If officers don’t want to train with a Taser, why are they weilding it on obnoxious university students at a John Kerry speech? Time for an extended pause, just like Canada did with the death penalty. Or for judicial direction in the context of a civil lawsuit: if an unintended death is the result of a Taser bolt, and it was administered in a situation where an officers’ life was not at risk, that death will be treated in the same fashion as negligent use of a sidearm causing innocent death. Whether it is a Taser or a Glock, if you use it in a fashion that results in an unintended death, and your life or the life of another citizen wasn’t at risk (or you didn’t at least believe that it was), the charge is Manslaughter.

Why is there a difference how the death comes about? If it isn’t a flaw in the technology (which is why more forces order Tasers by the day), then it must be negligent use that causes the death. If you didn’t mean to kill the Polish tourist at the airport, and the Taser is safe, you can’t blame the Taser when a confused airline passenger drops dead after a bolt. Pre-existing medical condition or not. Drunk or not.

And if the device wasn’t used outside the recommended parameters, why did he (and dozens of others like him) die if the device is non-lethal?

These events are not acts of God.