Daniel Sylvester can't forget the night the police fired 50,000 volts of electricity into his skull. The 46-year-old grandfather owns his own security business, and he was recently walking down the street when a police van screeched up to him.
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He didn't know what they wanted, but obeyed when they told him to approach slowly. "I then had this incredible jolt of pain on the back of my head," he explains. The electricity made him spasm; as he fell to the ground, he felt his teeth scatter on the tarmac and his bowels open. "Then they shot me again in the head. I can't describe the pain." (Another victim says it is "like someone reached into my body to rip my muscles apart with a fork.") The police then saw he was not the person they were looking for, said he was free to go, and drove off.
This did not happen in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or any other country notorious for using electro-shock weapons. It happened in north London and, if the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has her way, it will be coming soon to a street near you. In Britain there are 3,000 police officers trained to use Tasers as part of specialised armed response units, but Smith has fired a jolt forward. She wants there to be 30,000 Taser-carrying officers, authorised to use them against unarmed citizens, including children. These "stun-guns" fire small metal darts into your skin, and through the trailing wires run an agonising electric current through your body.
Smith is right to say that the police face a growing threat of violence, and these heroic frontline officers must have the means to defend themselves. She's also right to argue it better to use a Taser than to use a gun. But the police can already swiftly call out armed response teams, equipped with Tasers and firearms. If we move beyond this to a widespread culture of assault by electricity, it will only endanger the police – and the rest of us.
Smith wants Tasers to be distributed well beyond the ranks of specially trained firearms officers, but Tasers can kill. Amnesty International has just published a report showing that, since 2001, 334 people have died in the US during or just after Tasering. Jarrel Gray was a partially deaf 20-year-old black man involved in an argument in the street in Frederick County, Maryland, when the police approached him and ordered him to lie on the ground. He didn't hear them – so they Tasered him. As he lay paralysed on the ground, they told him to show his hands. He couldn't obey. They Tasered him again. Jarrel died in hospital two hours later.
Ryan Rich was a 33-year-old medical doctor who had an epileptic seizure while driving his car on a Nevada highway. He crashed into the side of the road. The police smashed a window to get into the car and Ryan woke up, startled. The police officer reacted by Tasering him repeatedly. Only when they were handcuffing him did they notice he was turning blue. He was dead before he got to hospital. The coroner noted dryly that the Taser "probably contributed" to his death. Taser International's brochures claim their weapons have "no after-effects."
There may, in fact, be even more deaths than are recorded. Taser International has responded to medical examiners saying their weapons kill not by changing their weapons, but by suing the medical examiners. After the chief medical examiner of Summit Country, Ohio, ruled that Tasering caused the death of three young men, they sued her, and she was forced to remove the conclusions from her reports. The president of the National Association of Medical Examiners says Taser International's behaviour is "dangerously close to intimidation".
Yet Smith appears still to be taking the corporate propaganda of Taser International – who dominate the international stun-gun market – at face value. The company are startlingly glib when their spiel begins to crumble. A recent scientific study conducted by biomedical engineers for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation found that nine per cent of the guns give a far larger electric shock than advertised. Some sent a 58 per cent higher voltage through the victim's body. Steve Tuttle, the vice-president of Taser, responded: "Regardless of whether or not the anomaly is accurate, it has no bearing on safety." The UK Defence Scientific Advisory Council has warned there is research suggesting that Tasers could cause "a serious cardiac event" when fired at children. But still Smith won't compromise.
Everyday on-the-beat policing does not happen in the tightly controlled scenarios imagined by the Home Office. It is messy and scrappy and carried out at high speed by people who are frightened and coursing with adrenaline: some 90 per cent of Tasered people in the US are unarmed. Matthew Fogg, who led a SWAT team in the US, warns that Tasers create a culture where "if I don't like you, I can torture you".
Back here in the U.S. we have another statistic:
A naked man who was banging on doors and windows at a northside apartment complex died Wednesday after being shocked by Tasers at least three times during a confrontation with Harris County sheriff's deputies, authorities said.
About 4 a.m., deputies received calls from residents at the apartments in the 200 block of Dominion Park near Kuykendahl.
Investigators said the 46-year-old man was randomly knocking on doors and windows and yelling while walking around the complex. At one point, he kicked open a front door and briefly went inside an occupied apartment, officials said.
The resident "did not know who he was," said Lt. John Legg of the Sheriff's Office.
The first deputy arrived within minutes.
"He was immediately confronted by the suspect, who ran toward his patrol car, opened the front passenger door and climbed in," Legg said.
The deputy ordered the man out, but the man ignored his commands, yelling and flailing his arms, Legg said.
"He was incoherent," the lieutenant said. "The deputy said his eyes appeared glassed over."
The deputy's Taser had little, if any, effect, officials said. After the man got out of the patrol car and pulled out the stun gun's prongs, the deputy fired it again while struggling with the man, officials said.
Autopsy orderedAnother deputy arrived and ordered the naked man to back away, then used his Taser, investigators said.
Deputies were then able to handcuff the man, officials said.
He appeared to be unresponsive when paramedics arrived, officials said.They performed CPR en route to Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
This is totally unacceptable. Here is another example of the police torturing and killing a mentally ill person with a taser. The horror is that this is becoming commonplace. We need to seriously rethink the use of tasers in this country and the British should take the lessons being demonstrated here to heart before they allow the same in their country.