Response to the Policing Board consultation on the introduction of tasers
Amnesty International | 01 March 2005
Amnesty International welcomes this opportunity to respond to the Policing Board's consultation on the introduction of tasers to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
However, as we have already made clear in public statements, a consultation period of just over two weeks is utterly inadequate for a decision of potentially life-threatening consequence. We urge the Board to assert its authority on this matter, extend the consultation period, hold a proper public consultation exercise and refrain from making any decision on the deployment of tasers until such a meaningful consultation has taken place.
Whilst Amnesty International welcomes attempts to develop less-lethal alternatives to firearms for use in policing, we have a range of serious concerns regarding the taser.
· Health risks
· Inadequate independent research and testing
· The potential for misuse
The health and safety risks posed by electro-shock weapons are potentially severe. Amnesty International's research has shown that more than 150 people have died in the US after being struck by tasers since June 2001 - 61 in 2005 alone - and numbers are continuing to rise. Most who died were subjected to multiple or prolonged shocks. While in most cases deaths have continued to be attributed to factors other than the taser, such as "excited delirium" associated with drug intoxication or violent struggle, in 23 cases coroners have listed the use of the taser as a cause or a contributory factor in death.
In three cases in 2005, the taser was listed as a primary cause of death.
Amnesty International believes there may be more cases where the taser cannot be ruled out as a possible factor in the deaths. Recent studies have cited the need for more research into potential adverse effects from taser shocks on people who are agitated or under the influence of drugs or who are subjected to multiple or prolonged shocks.
Inadequate independent research and testing
To date there has been no research conducted which meets Amnesty International's criteria for an independent, impartial and comprehensive investigation into the safety of tasers.
Various limited studies have attempted to assess the health concerns posed by tasers, some of which have been commissioned by the manufacturers, Taser International. In the UK, the Home Office, Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDN) has undertaken evaluations of tasers. Based upon these studies, a sub committee of the Defence Scientific Advisory Council (known as DOMILL) has made a number of statements and overall concluded that the "risk of a life threatening event arising from the direct interaction of currents of the X26 taser with the heart, is less than the already low risk of such an event from the M26 Advanced taser" . The statement included a number of caveats, however noting that the above conclusion was only relevant to healthy individuals and highlighted "contributing factors to cardiac susceptibility", such as "illicit drug intoxication, alcohol abuse, pre-existing heart disease and cardioactive therapeutic drugs".
Although the studies have indicated that tasers are generally safe for healthy adults, with tests extrapolating from experiments on animals, the tests are held in laboratory conditions and do not take into account real life use of tasers.
The HECOE research study found that "sufficient information does not exist to characterize the risk of all potential effects" and outlined areas that need further study and research, particularly the effects of tasers on vulnerable groups about whom Amnesty International has expressed concerns in our 2004 report : "young children, the elderly, individuals with underlying heart conditions, or individuals with concurrent drug use".
The US Department for Homeland Security's two largest law enforcement agencies (employing 20,000 officers in total), the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has rejected arming their officers with tasers. A spokesman for CBP stated that there were "enough questions about the safety of the [taser] device" to preclude the agency deploying them. ICE banned the use of tasers in 2003 after a review by their Firearms and Tactical Training Unit. An ICE spokesman said that "the decision was made out of an abundance of caution related to safety" .
The potential for misuse
Amnesty International's research in the US, where tasers are widely used as a standard tool in routine police work, suggests that the potential for abuse is high. The vast majority of cases where a taser has been employed it was not as an alternative to lethal force. A statistical analysis of 2,050 taser field applications across the USA, produced for Taser International in November 2002, showed that in 79.6% of cases the suspects were unarmed. Those subjected to shocks included elderly people, pregnant women (at least one of whom subsequently miscarried), and school children, including a nine year old girl who was already handcuffed.
In the UK, tasers are currently limited for use by authorised firearms officers, as an alternative to lethal force - a restriction which we welcome. Yet the UK government is already under pressure to widen this deployment. At least one Chief Constable, Merseyside's Brian Hogan-Howe, has called for their deployment to all patrolling police officers . Press comment by the PSNI has also indicated that the Chief Constable Hugh Orde's current proposal for a limited introduction of tasers is a "pilot" which could lead to wider deployment .
If the guidelines for taser deployment are widened this would break with the stated UK policing tradition of using only minimal force.
In conclusion, Amnesty International believes that any decision to authorise the deployment of tasers must be taken with due caution. We are therefore concerned at both the speed of your consultation and at the content of the annex to your letter of 7 March. This, we believe, does not adequately highlight the potential risks pertaining to vulnerable groups or refer to deaths in north America associated with taser use. We therefore urge the Policing Board to extend its consultation period and meanwhile provide the full range of evidence currently available on the effects of tasers and their safety.
Amnesty International also calls on the Policing Board to stress the need for more rigorous, independent review of the effects of tasers and their safety. The Board should also explicitly reject the notion that deployment to Specialist Firearms Officers is a pilot exercise that can lead to wider deployment within the PSNI before such further rigorous, independent research has been conducted.