Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Taser Controversy

In the late 1990's, following some years of research, a Scottsdale, Arizona firm called TASER (named after a fictional weapon, "Thomas A. Swifts Electric Rifle"), began marketing a pistol-sized "gun" designed to incapacitate humans through Electro-Muscular Disruption (EMD) technology, by causing severe muscle contractions through involuntary stimulation of both the sensory nerves and the motor nerves.  Originally intended for police use, Taser International is also marketing a civilian model. 
TASERS were introduced, or marketed as "less-lethal weapons" to be used to subdue fleeing, belligerent, or potentially dangerous subjects where the use of traditional instruments, such as batons, pepper spray or tear gas, or guns with live ammunition would have been otherwise used.
TASERS work by firing small penetrating darts into a subject, connected by wires to the electronic charge.  Some augmented models also function as "stun guns" intended to cause intense, debilitating pain.  
Anyone who has suffered an accidental electrical shock through ordinary household current, or even a strong snap from a static electric source, knows how terrifying this can be.  Any electric shock strong enough to cause an individual to go into involuntary convulsions belongs high on the list of dangerous instruments.
Once introduced into the criminal law enforcement community, TASERS have rapidly gained support and popularity among front line police officers and their advocates.  What greater thrill could there be than to "zap" a disorderly or uncooperative "perp" on the street?  How much less strenuous and problematic--than physically subduing someone, using a baton, or threatening deadly force with a pistol?  So clean and neat.  Zap!  
But tasers aren't safe.  Several studies have shown that the charge used in TASERS is sufficient to cause cardiac or respiratory arrest in some people, and to cause others to go into physical shock.  There are documented cases of people actually dying after being TASERed.  It is impossible for a policeman--or anyone else, for that matter--to know what kinds of medical conditions or susceptibilities a stranger may have.  Who can we trust with the authority to use TASERS when their potential danger is so great, especially for those who may be at risk for serious injury?     
Because the technology is so new, there are no laws governing when and under what conditions these new weapons can be used.  In addition, there hasn't been sufficient testing done to determine what the actual affects and risks are of routine police use on the street.
One can imagine that TASERS might be of use, for instance, in prisons, where large groups of hardened types might not otherwise be manageable.  Historically, tools like high-pressure water, tear-gas, rubber bullets, etc., have been used to control crowds.  
But these new toys constitute a completely new development in the use of technology to terrorize and bully individuals, and the communities where they live. 
TASERS have most often been used to intimidate and "punish" individuals who aren't sufficiently compliant and obedient.  With TASERS at their disposal, police officers are tempted to provoke and engage irresponsibly, believing that possession of these new space age short-cuts will shield them from the risk of charges of "police brutality" or provocative behavior.  
It's only a matter of time--despite assurances from the manufacturers--that these devices will fall into the hands of criminals and others in the general population.  Once the technology has been developed, it's difficult to keep the lid on their proliferation and abuse. 
Hybrid forms of the new technology are now being marketed directly to the general public:  "Stunning Pink" (pictured above), a new "personal safety device" works this way: "When deployed, 950,000 volts of electricity flow through the prongs on the end of the Stunning Pink into the body of the attacker.  The initial shock interrupts the signal between the attacker's neurotransmitters in the brain and their muscular system.  The interruption of this signal causes the attacker to immediately drop to the ground.  The delivery of this level of electricity to the muscular system causes the insulin to vacate the muscles leaving only lactic acid behind.  The lack of insulin in the muscles will cause the attacker to be temporarily immobilized, with no long term lasting effects."  
It isn't hard to see how the use of such powerful devices could, and would be used inappropriately, or with malice, by anyone--normal or deranged--wanting to flex their gadget muscles. 
As a matter of public good, these devices should be outlawed by all jurisdictions.  Their use cannot be properly monitored, and the risk of serious injury is too great to leave to casual chance.  


Norman Lathers said...

"Who can we trust with the authority to use TASERS?"

Not cops.

The only thing that will get them out of their hands is a big lawsuit, something of the magnitude of Rodney King maybe.

Kirby Olson said...

What do you suggest as an alternative?

The police need to subdue perps.

They can shoot them. They can hit them with a baton. But these have been found to be too injurious.

They could lasso them, but the perps might then learn to run away in a zigzag fashion, making them harder to lasso.

With rhinos, they can shoot darts with sleep toxins in them, in order to subdue them, and check their teeth for instance (also used with lions).

Are you suggesting them something like that work, or are you just saying that pscyhokillers should be able to run away, since that is their right?

Clint Eastwood didn't like that.

"Don't tase me, bro'!"

Political correctness functions as a kind of tase, but it only works on people with a conscience, and who are easily embarrassed.

I think within amish communities they use silence. You can be silenced for a year or more. That is, nobody will talk to you.

But you're not suggesting that such psychological warfare could be used against bank robbers, or sea pirates off the coast of Somalia?

I think if you want to get rid of the taser, you'd need to suggest an alternative that had the same effect, but was less dangerous.

The taser fulfills a need on the part of the police to stop perps cold. We need them to have this ability. Aside from a lasso (which requires years of practice and works better on cows than on humans who might figure out how to run a zigzag pattern while keeping their heads tucked in), I can't think of any better alternatives.

It's better than using a gun, since you can miss and take out a child.

With a taser, you are less likely to miss and shoot the pacifier out of the mouth of a nursing baby.

That's a positive, since pacifiers don't come cheap these days.

It's better than using a bazooka, for many of the same reasons.

Lasso is very hard to use outdoors in windy weather.

Are you suggesting that the rights of the perp are such that they should just be able to run away?

Curtis Faville said...

Can you see Eastwood grimacing, Taser in hand, saying "go ahead,!"

Tasers are actually more dangerous than nightsticks and a skilled officer's judo or hand-to-hand training.

Tasers can "inadvertently" kill someone, whereas wrestling or bumping a perp with a stick may be painful, but it doesn't risk disabling the central nervous system (a much more dangerous thing).

Police did just fine for hundreds of years without ray-guns. Until we come up with a technology that is safer than Tasers, they should be shelved.

Kirby Olson said...

Nightsticks can crack skulls, though.

Could you give me percentages of serious injuries by nightstick versus Tasers?

How many heart attacks are there per thousand uses of Taser, versus how many cracked skulls versus thousands of uses of nightstick?

"Bumping" someone isn't how the nightsticks are used. They often crack people on the head with them. Isn't this what sent your SF street poet Bob Kaufman into permanent mental confusion: a nightstick?

I wonder if he would have done better to have been Tasered.

Curtis Faville said...

There are statistics, but I don't have the time at the moment to research them. The industry public relations claims that Tasers are perfectly safe, ignoring the building body of evidence to the contrary.

Have you ever been Taser'd? I suggest no one--especially police officeers--should be allowed to use them without experiencing first hand what the real effects are.

There is also evidence that being Taser'd may have long term effects (injuries) to the nervous system, much like repeated exposures to x-rays can cause.

I'm cautious about new "perfectly safe" technologies. I.e., microwave ovens, irradiated food, etc. I'm unwilling to submit myself to being the unwilling trials volunteer.

Read some first-hand accounts of Tasers, by people who've experienced them. That might change your mind-set.

Kirby Olson said...

But the issue is that there has to be an alternative.

If the choice came down to having my skull cracked with a nightstick and being Taser'd, I think I'd take a risk with the latter.

I did once touch an electric fence in Iowa. It wasn't that bad. My uncle has a hog farm in Iowa. In fact, he held the wire, and then grabbed my hand. An old trick.

The electrons jump through his body right into mine, and cause a jolt.

Then he laughs as if some wonderful thing has happened, and you sit there steaming, thinking next year, let's stay home and not visit this jerk, while he can't wait for supper in order to show faces that pretend to mimic yours while being electrocuted.

Still, I'd prefer that to the old nightstick wielded by a three hundred pound goon angry that you are expressing your free speech rights or something.

One of the things about Tasers is that it's even Steven for everybody. I'm not a hemophiliac, but nightsticks are incredibly lethal.

hedera said...

This may be inaccurate, but: A year or so ago I took the Oakland PD's Civilian Academy, a 14 week course in which citizens can get an inside look at the police department. I may be hallucinating this (I'll have to go back and check my notes), but I have a memory that the course said officers in training are TASER'ed, so they know what it feels like. I'd think this would give the trainees some respect for the TASER. However, since the majority of police officer trainees are young men, who tend to assume that they are both immortal and invulnerable, the experience may not have the full intended effect.

Also, I may be wrong. I'll come back and repost if I am.

Curtis Faville said...


You're right. I remember reading this in some of the literature I reviewed prior to loading my post.

At the very least, this "harmless" technology needs to be experienced first-hand by anyone given the authority to utilize it. If I were an officer, my tendency would be to use it only as a last resort, when the likelihood of extreme conflict was at hand, NOT as a short-cut to using safer means.

Obviously, if the general public begins to acquire these gadgets, they're not going to be required to undergo any cautionary testing.

Kirby Olson said...

But the general public can get handguns, which are obviously a lot more effective in creating fear.

I only wish that bank robbers would bring in Tasers.

Curtis Faville said...

Oh, Kirby, you're tho thilly.

Kirby Olson said...

You can't just say tasers are dangerous, let's outlaw them, Curtis. It's so irresponsible I can't believe it. There has to be some way to tamp down the enthusiasms of the criminal element, whether it be guns or tasers or billy clubs, and I think tasers would be the least harmful of the three. To think that the criminal element will arm itself with tasers when guns and billy clubs are available seems to show that you think criminals are somehow decent enough to forego the more effective bludgeoning of the billy club, or the simple shotgun through the forehead technique.

I still think that unless you can prove a taser is more harmful than a kitchen knife, in spite of what happened at Virginia Tech last week, then this is like saying let's outlaw soap, since sometimes people slip on bars of it, or sometimes they actually bear diseases, and aren't that good for hygiene, since sometimes soap bars get filthy, and poison people with their filth.

Now that you're hosting a blog, you'll shortly see what it is to deal with a chronic poster, who in essence becomes a parasite.

At any rate, that's why I'm posting so much. I want you to experience it firsthand, so you can begin to sympathize with the man who wears the star.

But also, I just really like Tasers. I think they're a good alternative, and I'm impressed with the police for using them instead of billy goats.

Curtis Faville said...

Kirby, no problem with posting objections. But "illy goats." ??

The Compass Rose believes that harriers and gadflies are entitled to the same privileges of free speech as anyone else. Our policy will be, until further notice, not to block any post that is not overtly spam, or simply profane.

My concern isn't that criminals will get and use tasers, but that they will be used by the man on the street, much as pepper spray is today.

Clubs and tear gas and water spraying are ostensibly harmless, but they're also limited in the degree of their routine use. Tasers aren't. Tasers are an all-or-none tool. Once a taser is fired, the victim gets the full dose. If that person has any predisposition towards heart attack, epilepsy, or other kinds of conditions, they are in great danger from Tasers. No one--including police officers--is in a position to know beforehand what kinds of health issues anyone on the street may have. It's irresponsible to put these tools in the hands of those of authority--not to speak of individual citizens--because of the danger they pose.

Would you give nurses in hospitals dangerously strong "knock-out" drugs to use on hapless patients who were chronically abusive or insomniac?

If a mentally ill person suddenly goes into a tantrum in a fast-food restaurant, do we really want police officers--or restaurant owners--to Taser such people willy-nilly? It seems grossly inappropriate, but this is precisely the kind of instance in which the Taser manufactures expect their product to be used.

I'm sympathetic to the plight of street officers, but I have deep reservations about what kinds of violence I'm willing to let them use.

What's next, laser guns?

Every escalation in the fire-power of authority results in a rise in general lawlessness. That's always been true.

Norman Lathers said...

In a way it makes more sense to penalize police officers who misuse or abuse them, than to completely take them away at this point.

Curtis Faville said...

I don't think you punish the users. That's treating the symptom.

Taking these things out of circulation is the answer.

I think it's still early enough. But if we wait and every policeman is equipped with them, then it will be very difficult. They won't want to give them up.

Kirby Olson said...

Honestly I didn't know about the Taser controversy. I just googled, and there are many blogs with pro and con stances. One more serious article is from an industry professional who thinks everybody should have them in their home to protect against criminals, and to make sure the kids drink their milk.

It's here:

Just kidding about the milk.

They are illegal in New York state, and in about 6 other mostly New England states.

but everybody else can get one, and the author suggests they are far safer to have in your home for self-defense than to have a Gatling gun.

Curtis Faville said...

A relative of our former next door neighbor kept guns in his study. His little son took a playmate in there, started fiddling with them, and accidentally shot and killed his companion.

Though the National Rifle Association would like you to believe otherwise, having a gun in your house doesn't lessen your chances of being burgled, or mugged, or otherwise preyed upon. Indeed, having one on the premises measurably increases your and your family's chances of incurring serious harm.

Kirby Olson said...

There are people up in these hills with hundreds of guns who seem to never get hurt. I had a talk with a police officer a year ago who encouraged me to get a pistol and go to target practice with him.

I've never fired a gun in my life, and don't want to ever do it.

I can't stand loud noises.

And with four kids in the house, I'd tend to agree with your assessment. Too much possibility for mayhem.

It'll be interesting to see what happens to this police officer. I'll bet a nickel that he goes scot-free, but has to give up his career as a police officer.

They give pretty strict tests in NY state to budding police officers to be sure they are stable people. In my assessment, the police officers around here are quite good. But I wouldn't want to cross one. They are big guys and they don't mind it when someone wants to mess with them. They like to wrestle perps to the ground, or so it seems to me.

This is not something I would choose to do for a living. I would prefer to leave the Tasering, and the being Tasered, the shooting and the being shot, to others who are excited about such a thing. As for me, I just want to follow the laws, and to help others follow the laws through gentle reminders.