Tasers: The Non-Lethal Force That Kills

It’s time to stop describing Tasers as “non-lethal” weapons. They are quasi-lethal. At best.

That much should be clear from the death of 21-year-old Roberto Laudisio Curti in New South Wales last week.

The widely broadcast security camera footage shows Curti running away. One police officer in pursuit appears to pause, raise, and fire his Taser’s barbed projectiles at the Brazilian student. Curti stopped breathing shortly after.

If accurate, this incident would clearly be what the NSW Ombudsman warned about in a major report four years ago: Taser use is highly susceptible to mission creep. Nothing in the security footage suggests Curti presented an “extremely high risk” to officers or the public – the grounds for Taser use. From what we can tell, there was no threat or aggression.

But let’s put the specifics of this case aside. There are inquiries by the New South Wales Coroner and NSW Ombudsman which will be looking closely at those.

There is a more basic problem with the use of Tasers.

In the United States, 12,000 law enforcement agencies now carry the weapon. Assessing the evidence collected in that country, the National Institute for Justice (the research wing of the Department of Justice) found in 2011 there is “no conclusive medical evidence” indicating “a high risk of serious injury or death” from Tasers.

That sounds all well and good until you read the NIJ’s caveat: “… in healthy, normal, nonstressed, nonintoxicated persons.”

This is a particularly crucial caveat, as it is dealing with unhealthy, abnormal, highly stressed and blindingly intoxicated persons where Tasers are most useful.

One anonymous police officer wrote in the Punch after last week’s fatality he had “wrestled a lot of drug-affected people and they don’t give up easily. Often a lot of force needs to be used in order to bring them under control.”

More than half of those tasered in NSW between 2002 and 2007 were identified as having drug or alcohol problems, or having been intoxicated at the time of the incident.

A Taser is effective in such situations because it does not rely on pain, or the threat of pain, to compel compliance. The shock delivered through the darts completely incapacitates its target – the electric current overrides the brain’s control of the body and causes the muscles to spasm involuntarily.

So as a policing tool, it is most useful against drug-affected people who display “superhuman” strength.

And that is also exactly the circumstances where the research suggests Tasers are going to be at their most lethal.

This analytical disconnect allows supporters to claim Tasers are much safer than they actually are in practice.

Yet announcing the rollout of Tasers to general duties police in 2008, the Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said “if this is but one option that gives the police officers in the streets of NSW some alternative rather than to use deadly force, rather than to shoot somebody and killing them, then this is a good option.”

Even our limited experience in Australia shows Tasers don’t replace firearms. The Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission found they are a substitute for other tools like pepper spray.

Taser use has increased substantially over the last few years in WA, but firearm use has increased as well. This is a phenomenon overseas jurisdictions have discovered too, and it makes some sense. Depending on the environment and the officers’ training, attempts at tasering someone fail 10-20 per cent of the time. If a situation is truly dangerous, police officers use much more reliable guns.

It has been suggested the use of a Taser could have saved the life of the carjacker who was shot in a Parramatta shopping complex on Sunday.

Perhaps. But if the officers in question believed anybody was seriously at risk, a Taser would not have been their response. There is a reason officers still carry firearms.

Tasers don’t always attach to their target properly. The model in use in NSW can only fire once – if the darts miss, the officer has to reload. And in only 35 of 48 incidents studied by the NSW Ombudsman in 2008 were Tasers described as “effective”.

So yes: Tasers are less lethal than firearms, and in some circumstances would be preferable. But that is not how they are actually used. They are now, according to the WA CCC, the “force option of ‘choice'”. And, given the usual profile of individuals which they are used against, Tasers are a more potentially lethal replacement for other non-lethal methods.

Some reports have said Roberto Laudisio Curti was on drugs when he died.

The problem for Taser advocates is to devise a standard of use which recognises first, that Tasers are most useful when for dealing with highly intoxicated individuals and second, they are at their most deadly when doing so.