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Stun Guns – Excessive and Lethal Force or Keeping the Peace?

In the last ten years, stun guns, handheld, electrical devices which employ currents of up to 625,000 volts, have been utilized and hailed by police forces around the country as a safe and effective alternative to lethal force. Designed to key into the nervous system, they work by unloading immense bursts of energy into the muscles at a high pulse frequency. This rapid work cycle depletes blood sugar by converting it into lactic acid, with the resulting energy loss making it difficult to move and function. At the same time, the tiny neurological impulses that travel throughout the body to direct muscle movement are interrupted, causing disorientation and loss of balance and leaving the attacker in a passive and confused condition for several minutes,thus diffusing potentially violent situations and allowing order to be gained.

Manufacturers insist there is no significant effect on the heart and other organs, and that they are harmless. The question remains on whether they are ethical, particularly when employed in situations that are anything less than life-threatening. Over 5000 law enforvement agencies throught the US currently use Tasers and/or stun weapons as a part of their peace-keeping arsenal, with the take-up rate continuing to grow, reportedly by around 170 police agencies a month

Since there deployment however, numerous reports of their use on civilians, bystanders, teens and even children have been reported, which include:

• 10/31/06 Jerseyville Illinois: Police tased a teenager not once, but twice, who was carrying a bible and shouting “I want Jesus”. The teenager died the next day.

• 10/27/06 – Witchita Kansas: Authorities tased a pregnant woman, pulled over on minor drug charges, who miscarried shortly after. Deputies admitted they did not know the woman was pregnant when they shot her

• Two incidents in Miami reported by NPR; One which involved a twelve year old girl who was skipping school and was tased by Police when she attempted to run away. The other involved a six year old boy wielding a piece ofglass.

Amnesty International has on file over 160 taser-involved deaths over the last ten years. One particularly disturbing case involved a mentally disabled man, James Borden, who was arrested in a disoriented state in 2003 and died shortly after the administration of the last of six electro-shocks, delivered while his hands were reportedly cuffed behind his back.

The medical examiner released a statement listing cause of death as a heart attack, drug intoxication and electrical shock.

Other accounts highlight Florida, where law enforcement there were among the first to adopt the new generation tasers on a wide scale,where twelve of the recent US taser-related deaths have occurred. Florida police have reportedly used tasers to subdue:

• A man who refused to be fingerprinted and wrestled and shoved officers

• A woman who interrupted a seminar at a country club and pushed officers away, shouting that they were "sick with demons"

• A man who refused to discard the drink he was drinking in a park and refused to turn round and be handcuffed

• A woman who, ordered out of a pool for swimming naked and once dressed, refused repeated commands to turn round and put her hands behind her back.

• A 15-year-old schoolgirl, who was tasered and pepper sprayed after arguing with officers after she and other children were put off a bus during a disturbance.

• A 14-year-old schoolgirl who was tasered after fighting with a school "resource officer" in a classroom. The officer first used the taser as a "stun gun" applying it directly to her chest; when she continued to struggle he deployed the "air cartridge" twice before she was handcuffed.

In most or all of the cases cited above, the use of force was found to be in accordance with departmental policies.

It is important that methodologies are employed which enable law enforcement to serve and protect in as safe as a manner as possible. However, when non-violent civilians and children are being shocked routinely, perhaps it is time to re-examine the policies and support a firmer control over their usage.

Sources: Amnesty International, NPR

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