500 U.S. deaths from police Tasers; Amnesty calls for strict guidelines

On February 13, Johnnie Kamahi Warren died after a police officer used a Taser on him at least twice outside an Alabama bar. The police had been called when Warren became disorderly and combative at the bar.

Warren’s death raises the Taser-related death toll in the U.S. to at least 500.

Warren was unarmed. And that is not uncommon. In fact, a 2008 report by Amnesty International (AI) examined data on hundreds of deaths related to police Taser use and found that an alarming number of those who died were unarmed.

According to the report, “Tasers are frequently deployed in situations where firearms or other weapons would not be an option. For example, police have used Tasers on unarmed people who fail to comply immediately with instructions, who struggle while they are being handcuffed or who try to run or walk away from minor incidents. People who are intoxicated or verbally disruptive, but not committing, or threatening to commit, a serious crime have also had Tasers used against them.”

More recently, AI cited the case of Roger Anthony, who last November “fell off his bicycle and died after a police officer in North Carolina shot him with a stun gun. The officer reportedly shocked Anthony—who had a disability and hearing problems—because he did not respond to an order to pull over.” Anthony, too, was unarmed.

In the wake of the grim new milestone of 500 Taser-related deaths, AI is repeating its call for tighter limits on police use of lethal weapons. “Of the hundreds who have died following police use of Tasers in the United States, dozens and possibly scores of deaths can be traced to unnecessary force being used,” said Susan Lee, Americas program director for AI. “This is unacceptable, and stricter guidelines for their use are now imperative.”

AI is calling for strict national protocols for police use of Tasers and similar stun weapons that would effectively replace local police policies that permit a wider use of the weapons, often in situations that do not warrant such a high level of force.

While law enforcement agencies defend the use of Tasers, saying that they save lives and can be used to subdue dangerous or uncooperative suspects, AI contends that the weapons “should only be used as an alternative in situations where police would otherwise consider using firearms.” Indeed, as we’ve seen at least 500 times now, Tasers can be just as lethal as firearms. And too often misused.

And so I contend that the unnecessary overuse of Tasers against unarmed and unthreatening individuals can only be called lazy and cowardly at best.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: mary@maryshawonline.com.

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