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Tasers: unregulated, painful and potentially deadly

Students protest the tasing of a fellow student by UCLA police in Noember 2006.

Just a day after the American Heart Association (AHA) published a peer-reviewed report showing that the shock from the electronic stun guns known as Tasers can cause cardiac arrest, the Oakland police used a Taser against at least one Occupy protester.

Tasers are typically fired at a target from distances of up to 35 feet but can be used in “drive-stun mode” at close range. They administer 50,000 excruciating volts of electricity through wires attached to barbs that pierce the skin, immobilizing a person’s muscles. 

The report, in the AHA’s highly-respected journal Circulation, was written by Professor Douglas Zipes, a University of Indiana Electrophysiologist, who examined eight cases in which death followed the use of a Taser device.  According to Amnesty International, some 334 deaths resulted from Tasers between the years 2001 and August 2008, and that number has since risen to more than 500.  

Taser International, whose products have been used by 16,000 police departments across the globe and have delivered over three million shocks world-wide, maintains that Tasers are “less lethal” devices that save lives by helping keep police officers safe and making it less likely that they will fire their guns. Because the devices do not use gunpowder, they are not regulated by the government, and are generally free of legal requirements regarding testing and use.

In its 2011 study of the 851 cases of Taser use by eight police departments in New York State, the New York Civil Liberties Union found that in 60 percent of the cases, Taser incidents did not meet criteria recommended for their use. People were repeatedly stunned with multiple Taser blasts in 30 percent of the cases. In 15 percent, Tasers were used against people who were passively non compliant or already handcuffed or restrained. In only 15 percent of the incidents, were they used on people who were armed or thought to be so.   

There is evidence in New York and elsewhere that African Americans are disproportionately subjected to Taser shocks. Tasers have been used on the elderly, pregnant women, people suffering from dementia, people with pacemakers and school children: an 11-year-old girl with a learning disability was Tased in her Florida school after she punched a police officer. 

A wheelchair bound woman died after being Tased, as did a doctor who had crashed his car after he suffered an epileptic seizure. He was repeatedly shocked with a Taser at the side of a road after he failed to comply with police requests. 

If you think campuses may be Taser-free sanctuaries, consider the November 2006 case of a UCLA student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad, who was Tasered by campus police at least three times in the University library after failing to show his ID card.  The video of the incident has been viewed over a million times.

Tasers may appear “less lethal” when compared with other weapons in the growing police arsenal – tanks, for instance.  But in far too many cases, their use can amount to “deadly force,” especially in the hands of those police officers who prize the power to inflict pain against anyone not regarded as appropriately submissive.

Read more about so-called "less than lethal" weapons.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.