tasers: sexy, futuristic and lethal

From Crikey, last week:

If you want to see George Bush get tasered (and let’s face it, who doesn’t!), check out Huffington Post today. Actually, that’s not quite right: it’s the luckless Colin Powell who receives the volts while Bush just gets pepper sprayed. OK, so it’s not really Powell and Bush but Jeffrey Wright and Josh Brolin, the actors who play them in the Oliver Stone film W.

Nonetheless, the footage has a particular relevance for Melbourne, where the fatal shooting by police of 15-year old Tyler Cassidy has prompted a renewed debate about the introduction of tasers to the force. At present, police everywhere else in Australia are either using or trialing the weapons, and the Police Association is campaigning for its members to be allowed to do the same.

In response, Deputy Commissioner of Police Kieran Walshe said, quite sensibly:

Earlier this year we had a look at the issue around tasers, we were mindful of some reports emanating from Canada (and) also a NSW Ombudsman’s report and we were also mindful of trials and roll-outs that were occurring in other states […].

We also took into consideration, clearly there’s evidence coming out of the United States that a number of people have died as a result of the use of tasers and we were not satisfied at that point in time it was the right move for us.

Indeed, it’s been fairly well documented that tasers can be far more dangerous than the euphemism “stun gun” suggests. According to a recent Amnesty International study, they’ve killed more than 70 people in the US and Canada since 2001.

That figure could well be higher, since Taser International, the corporation that makes the things, has been conducting (sorry!) a remarkable campaign of legal harassment against medical examiners who list tasers as a cause of death. The Arizona Republic writes:

Medical examiners say they’re concerned that Taser’s aggressive moves could have a chilling effect on doctors, preventing them from blaming Tasers for deaths even when evidence exists.

Even more disturbingly, the company has been offering stock options and cash payments to New York police in exchange for them conducting training programs with tasers.

But the Wright/Brolin footage matters for another reason. It provides a shocking (there we go again!) illustration of how tasers often get used in practice — not as an alternative to lethal force but as a supplement to conventional restraints. As Johann Hari pointed out in the Independent late last year, some ninety per cent of those tasered in the US are entirely unarmed. In many cases, they’re already entirely subdued when the juice gets turned on. In Orange County, early last year, video emerged of sheriff’s deputies using tasers on inmates strapped to chairs. In that context, a weapon delivering a huge jolt of electricity makes a handy torture device, especially when you consider Fort Worth Police spokesman Dean Sullivan’s description of what getting tasered actually feels like:

You just lock up. There is no fighting it. Imagine the worst charley horse you’ve ever had in your whole life, and now imagine it from your head to your toes. It will definitely get your attention. And it hurts. It really, really hurts.

None of this is to imply that confronting a mentally disturbed youth armed with a knife is an easy thing to do. But, in some ways, that’s the problem — tasers promise an instant technological fix to a much more complex issue. That’s why they make such a great tabloid story: a wonderful futuristic machine subduing violent perps by electricity — and yet our police are denied them!

Here’s a very modest proposal. Even those who support officers carrying tasers can surely agree with Elizabeth Crowther from the Mental Health Fellowship of Victoria that a greater understanding of psychiatric symptoms would dramatically reduce fatalities in street confrontations. Mental illness is not nearly as s-xy as an electrical gun but more training about it might well help police defuse confrontations without anyone ending in a bodybag. It would be nice, then, to see the Police Association and the tabloids campaigning for that, too.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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