Amnesty International: A Taser victim's penalty 'should not be death'
Police use of Tasers to subdue suspects can rise to the level of torture, according to Amnesty International USA's executive director, Larry Cox, whose organization is calling for a moratorium on the electroshock devices.
Cox appeared on CBS's Early Show to discuss a dramatic spike in Taser-related deaths -- a total of six people died after being Tasered in separate incidents last week in the US and Canada -- and to urge the continued study of potential dangers he says are inherent to law enforcement reliance on Tasers.
"You have people who are often in custody, and when they are in custody and it's being used repeatedly on them, it's hard to describe it as anything else but torture," said Cox. Amnesty International USA first raised concerns that some Taser practices amounted to torture in 2006.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture voiced a similar opinion about Tasers last Friday, commenting that one stun gun model "constituted a form of torture" by inflicting considerable pain.
Asked about the UN statements, Cox said that the panel's characterization of some Tasering as torture carried significant weight.
"It means that it's a very serious thing because the UN does not lightly use the word torture," he said. " These are people that have seen torture around the world, they've seen the worst kinds of torture...And because we know from our own experience that electroshock often is used as a form of torture deliberately. You're shooting 50,000 volts of electricity into people; it's extremely painful."
Taser International, the manufacturer of the TaserX26, the specific stun gun cited by the UN, denies that its device has ever been directly responsible for a death. Cox said that although there was not yet definitive proof, more study of the incidents was needed.
"Nobody really knows exactly why these people are dying, we only know that people are dying after they are Tasered," said Cox. "When we started doing our first study, 70 people had died in the United States. Now it's nearly 300 people who have died in the United States. They're Tasered and then they die. We're calling for a study to find out exactly why."
Although he acknowledges that other circumstances may contribute to Taser deaths, the Tasers themselves were undeniably a contributing factor.
"It may be because they have a heart condition, it may be because they're on drugs, it may be because of some other factor that we don't know about," he added. "The important thing is they are dying after they they are Tasered. That cannot be denied, no matter how you spin the language."
Cox said that one reason for the pervasive use of Tasers by police forces was the perception that the device was not particularly dangerous.
"It's been billed as something safe and easy," he continued. "So it's natural that police who are in very difficult situations -- and are worried for their own lives -- may tend to use it too easily."
Answering claims made by some police authorities that a ban on Tasers would force officers to resort to potentially more dangerous weapons such as batons and pepper spray, Cox stressed that whatever the method employed by authorities, it should be fundamentally safe.
"We also want there to be a safe way to subdue people. I think that's very good," he concluded. "But we have to study this and find out that this is really safe. The penalty for resisting arrest should not be death."
An Amnesty International report on Taser-related deaths can be read here.
This video is from CBS's Early Show, broadcast on November 26, 2007.