Tasers: police torture weapons
Jenny Brown
April 2005

In March, Orange County police used a taser electrical shock gun on an 18 year old Orlando man who was tied to a hospital bed. The reason given was that the man refused to give a urine sample.

What does a taser feel like? Police officers who underwent 1.5 second jolts as part of their training said, "Anyone who has experienced it will remember it forever... You don't want to do this." (The Olympian, October 14, 2002).

But 1.5 seconds is a fraction of the normal taser, which lasts for 5 seconds, unless the trigger is held down, in which case it lasts as long as the battery holds out. With the jolt, the victim's central nervous system is incapacitated, the victim's muscles contract painfully and if they are standing, they fall to the ground. Often the jolt causes the victim to lose bladder and bowel control.

"They call it the longest five seconds of their life... it's extreme pain, there's no question about it. No one would want to get hit by it a second time." (County Sheriff, quoted in The Kalamazoo Gazette, Michigan, 7 March 2004)

"It is the most profound pain I have ever felt. You get total compliance because they don't want that pain again," a firearms consultant told the Associated Press. (12 August 2003.)

According to an exhaustively documented November 30, 2004 report by Amnesty International on taser use in the U.S. and Canada, electro-shock weapons are now used by police departments to enforce compliance with police orders, to retaliate against handcuffed suspects who are talking back or refusing to follow police instructions, and as punishment in prisons.

The tasers used by police departments in the U.S. are much more powerful than electric cattle prods, and can be used from a distance. They are manufactured by Taser International, which is based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The M26 and X26 models can be used as a stun gun in contact with the victim or can shoot darts 25 feet and deliver 50,000-volt electric shocks.

Stun belts are also now used on prisoners. Amnesty notes, "In some US jurisdictions, high security prisoners are made to wear electro-shock stun belts during transportation, hospital visits or court hearings. Amnesty International has condemned such devices as inherently cruel and degrading because the wearer is under constant fear of being subjected to an electro-shock at the push of a remote control button by officers for the whole time the belt is worn."

Amnesty has also identified over 70 deaths associated with tasers, and called for a complete suspension of their use until objective studies of their effects have been done. (Amnesty's full report is available at http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engamr511392004)

Five thousand police departments in the U.S., and 60 in Canada, use tasers. Their use is rapidly growing. The Duval County police recently considered buying tasers for all the police who work in the Jacksonville schools. Residents and parents protested. According to Amnesty, countries using or testing tasers include: Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Spain, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

Tasers are classed as "non-lethal" weapons. But so were the rack, thumbscrews and the iron maiden "non-lethal." They, too, were used to extract compliance and repentance. The difference is that the taser is a ready-to-hand street torture method. Before the taser, the police used pain compliance holds, batons, dogs, electric cattle prods, and more recently pepper and other chemical sprays. The difference, as Amnesty points out, is that the taser is much more painful and leaves nearly no evidence. "Portable and easy to use, with the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button without leaving substantial marks, electro-shock weapons are particularly open to abuse."

Tasers are promoted by their manufacturer as an alternative to using firearms against suspects in cases where the police or others are threatened with injury or death. Taser International claims that they will reduce the number of deaths, both among suspects and police. But is that how they're used?

Amnesty's report details case after case in which taser electrical shocks are used against suspects and prisoners who are doing nothing more than refusing to go with police, failing to follow police orders, arguing, or running away.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a Washington woman shows how quickly tasers have become the weapons of choice for any situation. An officer with the Washougal, Washington police department went to the house of Russian immigrant Olga Rybak with a dog citation because her dog had allegedly bitten another officer the day before. Amnesty reports on the lawsuit:

Rybak, who spoke little English, at first refused to sign [the citation], asking for a translator. While attempting to arrest her, the officer shocked her at least 12 times in 91 seconds in front of her two young sons - first using the weapon as a stun gun, then stepping back to insert a cartridge and twice firing darts at Rybak who was writhing around on the front porch. When the boys (aged 11 and 12) tried to help their mother, the officer reportedly threatened to taser them as well. Rybak's attorney has informed Amnesty International that the boys have been receiving psychiatric treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the incident.

The officer was the Taser Training officer for the department.

And the Amnesty report cites this incident, in which a suspect in custody and in handcuffs was tasered repeatedly: "I asked Borden to lift up his foot to remove the shorts, but he was being combative and refused. I dry stunned Borden in the lower abdominal area We got Borden into the booking area. Borden was still combative and uncooperative. I dried [sic] stunned Borden in the buttocks area" After the final shock, the officer "noticed that Borden was no longer responsive and his face was discolored." (Extract from officer's statement on James Borden, a mentally disturbed man being booked into an Indiana jail.)

Borden was dead.

Are these uses the exception to the rule? In fact, police departments across the country have guidelines which recommend taser use in these instances.

The vast majority of taser uses are against people who are unarmed or already restrained with handcuffs. According to a report by the manufacturer, in 80% of cases, the taser victim was unarmed. "An analysis of the 'suspect force level' in which a taser was deployed gave the most common category (37% of cases) as 'verbal non-compliance.' This was followed by 'active aggression' in 32.6% of cases; 'defensive resistance' in 27.7% of cases and 'deadly assault' in only 2.7% of cases." So in 65% of cases, not only was the victim unarmed, they were not threatening, even with their bare hands. And that's from a report by the manufacturer, based on police claims.

Amnesty also notes the use and threatened use of tasers in jails and prisons. In a lawsuit filed against Greene County Jail in Missouri, the following incidents are alleged:

* An African American woman was asked to remove her jewelry on being booked into the jail in June 2003. She removed everything except an eyebrow ring, which was difficult to remove. When she asked for a mirror she was allegedly sprayed in the face with pepper spray and, when she put her hands up to protect her face, was shot with a taser, causing her to fall to the ground and lose control of her bladder. While on the ground, a male officer forcibly removed her eyebrow ring with pliers. She was left in her urine for several hours without being given anything to clean herself with.

* A man being taken to the "drunk tank" was slammed to the ground face-first. As he lay on the ground bleeding, a guard allegedly fired a taser gun at him, causing acute pain, although he was not moving or struggling. He was taken to hospital where he had stitches to his mouth. On return to the jail, when told he had failed to shampoo his hair satisfactorily, an officer threatened him with a taser gun, saying "you don't want this again". On his release, the jail tried to get him to sign "reprimand papers" stating that he was shocked with a taser because he had attempted to run to the jail entrance; according to the lawsuit, he refused to sign the papers because the facts in them were not true.

* A man who said he might be allergic to soap in the shower was threatened with a taser gun and told to use the soap provided.

* A man booked into the jail on an outstanding traffic warrant was allegedly assaulted and subjected to an "overly invasive bodily search" and repeatedly called a "faggot." He was allegedly tasered while he was prostrate and in handcuffs.

* A woman booked into the jail in March 2003 was placed in a cell by herself in a distraught condition. A jail employee said he would taser her if she did not be quiet and calm herself. It is alleged that, while she was attempting to calm down, two guards entered her cell and one attached two taser clips to her shirt in the chest region; the other guard then activated the taser gun. According to the lawsuit, she suffered "severe burns and permanent scars to her chest and stomach" as a result of being tasered.

The U.S. military is also a customer of Taser International. Among the units that are outfitted with tasers is the 800th Military Police Brigade, which was found responsible for torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Following procedures
Amnesty notes that police procedures place tasers low in the categories of 'use of force.' "A survey by Amnesty International of more than 30 US police departments (including 20 of the largest city or county agencies) indicates that tasers are typically placed in the mid-range of the force scale, below batons or impact weapons rather than at, or just below, lethal force. Some departments place the entry level for tasers at an even lower level, after verbal commands and light hands-on force."

As a result, the police are never found to have done something wrong, even when people die after being tasered several times.

Amnesty reports this instance:

William Lomax, aged 26, died in Las Vegas, Nevada in February 2004, after allegedly fighting with police and security guards at a housing complex. At an inquest in the case, the security guards testified that they had approached Lomax because he appeared to be overdosing on drugs, "dazed and confused", walking in circles, lifting his shirt and sweating. A struggle followed, during which a Las Vegas police officer jolted Lomax seven times with an X26 taser in stun gun mode. Some of the jolts were applied as he was pinned face-down on the ground by four security guards who were trying to handcuff him and again when he was face-down on a gurney (stretcher). According to inquest testimony, at least three of the jolts were applied to the side of his neck, a procedure authorized during police training. When asked if the Las Vegas Police Department placed a limit to the number of shocks which could be applied, a taser training officer said: "What we tell and train our officers is, you can use this as many times as it's going to take to get compliance."

Police departments told Amnesty that they can use tasers "prior to the use of intermediate weapons" (Miramar, Florida Police Department) to "overcome resistance to arrest" (Philadelphia PD), and "at any point force is needed" (Indianapolis PD). "While many departments authorize tasers at the level of 'active physical resistance,' according to a number of policies Amnesty International has seen, this can be in the form of 'bracing or tensing' or 'attempts to push or pull away.'"

Amnesty notes that in many cases, tasers are used instead of pepper or chemical sprays, which the organization says are also often misused. "Rather than substituting electro-shock weapons for pepper spray or other force options, better training and restraint in the use of force would be a more appropriate strategy in many situations." They use the example of the San Jose, California Police Department, which, after undergoing specialized training in dealing with disturbed individuals, was able to decrease the number of police shootings to zero in 1999. After tasers were introduced in 2004, however, the number of shootings rose again.

On March 11, 2005 a Lake City man was tasered repeatedly when police showed up at his house with a court order for a psychiatric examination. Milton Woolfolk was tasered after the police said they made repeated attempts to calm him down. "I'm not sure the number of times (he was tasered)" Sheriff Bill Goatee was reported as saying in the Gainesville Sun (March 12). "I think it was several." Woolfolk died shortly thereafter.

"From all indications that were given to me, it appears (deputies) were doing exactly as they were trained to do," Goatee said of the incident.

Reading the whole Amnesty report, which runs 80 pages, is traumatizing in itself. The number of unprovoked or unnecessary taser uses, and the brutality employed, defy imagination, let alone summation.

Among the cases in which the victim died after being tasered:

"Glenn Richard Leyba, aged 37, died in Glendale, Colorado in September 2003. According to a report on the case by the District Attorney's office, paramedics arrived at Leyba's apartment after his landlady called for an ambulance, and found him "laying face-down, rolling from side to side making moaning and whimpering sounds". A police officer twice used her taser on him as a stun-gun when he failed to respond to attempts to roll him over and became "physically resistant". The police report is cited as stating that the second stun mode discharge "increased his level of agitation." The same officer then fired a taser dart into Leyba's back, resulting in Leyba "moaning, screaming and 'flailing' his legs and in an increase in his level of physical agitation. It did not, however, gain Mr Leyba's compliance". Altogether, Leyba was electro-shocked in stun or dart mode at least five times, after which he "stopped all physical resistance" and was handcuffed behind his back. The report states that "while being wheeled to the ambulance, the paramedics noticed that Mr Leyba's skin color was grayish, that he had stopped breathing, and that he had no pulse". Efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead in hospital. ...

"Roman Gallius Pierson, aged 40, died in October 2003 in Yorba Linda, California. Police had responded to reports that a disturbed man had been running in and out of traffic. According to press reports, Pierson had run into a gas station forecourt and was rubbing ice onto his face, complaining of being hot and thirsty, when the police arrived; he was shot with a taser when he ignored an order to lie down on the pavement; while on the ground, he was tasered again when he began "grappling with police," according to a police spokesman. ...

"Gordon Randall Jones, aged 37, died in Orange County Florida, in July 2002, after reportedly being jolted at least 12 times with a taser. According to media reports, the taser was used after Jones became disruptive outside a hotel and "refused to leave and pulled away from deputies." He walked with deputies to an ambulance but died on the way to hospital. ..."

Torture weapons proliferate
Pain has long been the power structure's compliance method of choice, whether it was the heretic's fork or the rack of Europe, or the dogs and electric cattle prods of the Jim Crow south.

It's time to draw the line and ban tasers.

The line needs to be drawn soon because UF was recently reported to be involved in the development of a mass laser pain weapon to use on crowds. A UF professor who works with lasers but is not involved in the research was asked about this by the Gainesville Sun (April 8, 2005). "It sounds like the opposite of Lasik eye surgery," he said. Eye surgeons use lasers to vaporize tissue and cause "zero pain." "They're trying not to vaporize tissue and cause pain." British scientists told the New Scientist they thought that the project was "perfecting the technology of torture." (That New Scientist article was carried here last month.)

Demonstrators, like those who went to Miami to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas, can have no doubt that these more perfect pain weapons--like the pepper spray and plastic-coated bullets they faced for expressing their views--are meant for dissenters of all kinds, individuals and groups, whether their outrage is personal or political.

The development, sale and use of these weapons is not inevitable. Seventy countries have banned the use of tear gas and pepper spray. Only a few use tasers today. In England, taser use by police is strictly regulated and only where guns might be otherwise be used.

In the U.S., tasers should be banned immediately. They are not only another symptom of a police and prison culture based on bullying, they are a tool that enables worse bullying to occur. Pain weapons should not be available to the police or the military. Without them, and with powerful civilian oversight, the police can be taught to serve citations, interact with the public, deal with the intoxicated or mentally disturbed, and arrest people, all without brutalizing them or killing them. Even in a society that regularly drives people nuts, that should be a minimum requirement of the police.

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