A man who died after being Tasered by police in north Queensland is the second person to die in Australia this year after being restrained with the stun gun.
An investigation into how the man died is under way. In New Zealand, the Government recently allocated money in the Budget to fund the national roll-out of Tasers to police officers. The Police Association today reaffirmed its view that Tasers are safer for police and “those they are policing”.
Associate Professor Brian McKenna, and senior lecturer Tony O’Brien of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Science are available for comment on Tasers and mental health, the condition of excited delirium which deaths in police custody are sometimes attributed to.
Dr Jared Strote, Assistant Professor, Division of Emergency Medicine ,University of Washington Medical Center:
“it is fairly clear that the use of TASERs on healthy individuals is rarely dangerous (there are hundreds of thousands of uses in the US without serious sequelae). The question is whether there is a subset of people for whom there is a higher risk.
“The problem is that the individuals who have died in custody temporally associated to TASER use are the same types who are at higher risk of death during police restraint no matter what type of force is used.
“Because the deaths are rare, and because creating scientifically controlled conditions that reflect real life law enforcement restraint is nearly impossible, it is hard to draw conclusions about the real risks of TASERs in these situations
“The laboratory studies that have been done on humans and pigs are also inconclusive and sometimes contradictory.
“Hence the continued debate. The issue is probably less whether or not TASERs can cause death (they probably can but very infrequently); the better question is whether their net benefits (potential to avoid using more lethal weapons (like firearms), potential to decrease risk to officers, etc.) outweigh the potential costs.”
Dr Anthony Bleetman a consultant in emergency medicine based in the UK and has published numerous peer-reviewed papers on Tasers.
“Tasers have been used on human subjects probably about a million times, some in training and a lot in operational deployment. With any use of force there is a risk of death. But when you look at the big picture the death rate after Taser is no higher than with other types of force. But what we do know is that there is a certain type of individual who is at greater risk of death after police intervention – the so-called excited delirium state where somebody, usually a male in their 20s or 30s, often with a psychiatric history, often on illicit drugs or psychotropic drugs, has been in a fight or pursuit, physically exhausted, not feeling pain, dehydrated and hypoxic. And then you add on top of that physical restraint by police. These are the ones that die and they die whether you Taser them or don’t Taser them.
“There’s a growing opinion now that if you deploy Taser earlier you may possibly reduce the risk of death because you terminate that physical struggle a lot earlier. You stop the exhaustion and stop them fighting and you get control before they become too exhausted and get into serious trouble.
“The key thing about Tasers is the appropriateness of deployment. Police officers have a whole spectrum of options to use in force from talking to people to laying their hands on people to using capsicum sprays, batons and dogs. And then there’s a gap until you get to firearms when you shoot people. So between batons, dogs, sprays and guns, Tasers sit quite nicely to use against people who are so agitated and so dangerous to themselves and others that the only way to take them down is something as lethal as a gun or as dangerous as a police dog.
Regarding the issue of multiple Taser strikes:
“Some individuals are so fired up and violent that it takes more than one Taser strike to take them down and keep them down. There may be operational issues there that the police need to address – whether the first strike didn’t make good contact or the cable broke etc. If they used manual restraint and pepper spray first it indicates that they did not go straight in with a high level of force and suggests that they did everything they could before using the Taser. Someone in the excited delirium state can behave like a wild animal and is extremely difficult to restrain.”
RMIT University’s Associate Professor Julian Bondy, an expert in justice and policing issues, is available for comment on the death of a man in Queensland who had been tasered by police:
“The tragedy in Queensland today should be a cause for reflection and pause,” Associate Professor Bondy said.
“We need to consider the direction of policing in Australia and whether arming police with more and more weapons actually helps to achieve the aim of building safer communities.
“This incident has all the hallmarks of something that previously would have been handled by talking someone down or using pepper spray. It reinforces concerns that the increased access to weaponry by police will lead to more weapons being deployed in situations where in the past they were not.
“This incident also reinforces that these so-called ‘non-lethal’ weapons are in fact highly dangerous. They have led to deaths around the world and now, sadly, in Australia.
“Unfortunately, the tragedy in Queensland was inevitable.
“Taser guns are frequently described as ‘non-lethal’ weapons but this is a misrepresentation. They are not non-lethal, only less dangerous, compared with other weapons.
“Numerous deaths overseas have shown Tasers can kill, and this has been emphasised by the death this morning.
“Overseas, Tasers have also caused serious and permanent injuries, such as one incident in which a man lost his eye. These are not benign weapons. They carry serious risks.
“While there is always an element of risk with any weapon used by police, Tasers are believed to be far less dangerous than the reality has shown.
“Police commanders, especially in states where Tasers have not yet been introduced, must seriously consider the implications of this tragic death on their weapons policies.”
For interviews: RMIT University’s Associate Professor Julian Bondy, (+61 3) 9925 2293 or (+61) 411 260 866.
For general media enquiries: RMIT University Media and Communications, Gosia Kaszubska, (+61 3) 9925 3176 or (+61)417 510 735.
To talk to these or other New Zealand scientists Tasers, please contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: email@example.com.
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