Hundreds have died after being tasered, so Dateline asks if taser safety has been properly tested and whether police rely on the weapon too much.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, May 29, 2012 - 21:32
Channel: 
SBS One

The death of Brazilian man Roberto Laudisio Curti in Sydney after being tasered by police has once again thrust the safety of tasers into the headlines.

His isn't the first death after being incapacitated with a shock from the 50,000 volt weapon, but the manufacturers in the United States still insist they're safe.

Nick Lazaredes gets open access to Taser International's factory in Arizona, as well as going on patrol with Portland Police in Oregon, who both vigorously defend their use.

But he also finds a growing list of incidents where people have been left dead or seriously injured after being tasered by police; some of them without even committing any crime.

So has the safety of tasers really been properly tested? And have police gone too far in relying on their use?

WATCH - Click to see Nick's investigation.

THE TASER DEBATE - Find out how tasers work, and read more about the arguments for and against their use. Then tell us what you think on our comments page.

Photo (taser file image): Newspix

The Taser Debate

Tasers work by using electrical pulses to disrupt the voluntary control of muscles, thereby temporarily incapacitating people.

They fire two small dart-like electrodes, which in most taser models stay connected to the main unit by wire.

The electrodes are propelled by small compressed nitrogen charges, similar to those in some air or paintball guns.

The manufacturer, Taser International, says the pulses sent through the electrodes 'mimic the electrical signals used within the human body to communicate between the brain and the muscles.’

The artificial pulses interfere with this natural communication, quickly rendering the person temporarily unable to control their movements.

Taser International likens it to static on a telephone line, which passes without permanent damage.

For

In an interview with SBS News, Professor Cavazzini from the Australian National University explains that the millisecond pulses of electricity are specifically designed to target motion muscles and not cardiac muscles.

He says the electrical pulses can cause breakdown of muscle tissue, release of toxins and change in blood acidity, but they are all within the levels normally seen in human exercise, even when the taser is used repeatedly.

Although the voltage involved is very high, the current (measured in amps) is very low and pulsed rather than constant, which Taser International says makes it much less dangerous than a domestic electricity supply, which has a low voltage but high continuous current.

Tasers have become extremely popular among police forces worldwide. Nearly every officer in the United States carries one.

A study by the US National Institute of Justice concluded that 'there is no conclusive medical evidence in the current body of research literature that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death’, but does add this only applies 'in healthy, normal, non-stressed, non-intoxicated persons.’

They’re also used across Australia, although are not carried as standard by all police officers.

Taser International asserts that they are a safe alternative to lethal weapons.

Against

But critics say if someone’s body has already been affected by illness, alcohol or drugs, for example, the cumulative effect of that, and the changes in the body’s function made by the taser, can be too much for the body to take.

They say over 700 deaths worldwide can be linked to people who’d been tasered.

The American Civil Liberties Union is among those calling for them to be banned until further safety tests are carried out.

Others also criticise a lack of testing. For example, a new study by the American Heart Association found evidence that the electrical pulses from tasers can cause heart attacks.

Campaigners, such as Truth"¦ not Tasers and Portland Copwatch, also say police are now using them too often, including on people who haven’t even committed a crime.

The high-profile Braidwood Inquiry in Canada, which followed the death of a man at Vancouver Airport, concluded that tasers should only be used in the face of an imminent bodily threat.

Follow the links above for more on both sides of the debate, then go to our comments page to tell us what you think.

Resources

Transcript

When a 21-year-old Brazilian student died after being tasered by police in Sydney earlier this year, there were renewed calls for tasers to be banned with critics claiming the incident is further evidence that the devices can kill. Critics say tasers are being abused by police, not to prevent life threatening situations, but merely to ensure compliance and at times as an implement of torture. Nick Lazaredes travelled to the United States where tasers have been in use for over a decade to talk with police, taser victims and the company that makes them. Here is Nick.

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

They may have been embraced by police forces worldwide, but tasers remain as contentious as ever. With persistent claims that they're far more dangerous than the manufactures make out.

DAVID FIDANQUE, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION: The fact that there are hundreds of people who have died relatively soon after or immediately after being subjected to a taser in the mind of the company is complete coincidence and nothing to do with their product.

Tasers' critics claim that well over 700 deaths worldwide have been linked to the weapon. While the figures have been rejected by the taser company as wildly exaggerated, some international human rights groups are calling for tasers to be banned.

DAVID FIDANQUE: The more tasers are used the more deaths we will see and the more serious physical injuries to suspects we will see.

Civil liberties advocates like the ACLU's David Fidanque, believes an over reliance on tasers has led to its misuse with the weapons now being deployed in situations where they are neither warranted, nor justified.

NEWSREADER: A 14-year-old girl is recovering from a taser shot to her head.

Police tasered an 11-year-old student today as a last resort.

A 72-year-old great grandmother was tasered on the routine traffic stop.

As the popularity of tasers amongst police continues to soar, so, too, has it potential for misuse, with mounting evidence that police are using it or threatening to use it in order to gain compliance.

POLICE: Who's your buddy that ran?

MAN: I don't know who that guy is.

POLICE: Who's your buddy that ran?

MAN: I don't know him.

POLICE: I'm gonna taser you in the f***ing nuts!

DAVID FIDANQUE: It causes pain that is so intense and yet in most cases leaves no sign of physical injury, so you can actually torture somebody without leaving visible marks.

Now the storm of protest over tasers is set to surge, with a new generation of advanced long-range models like the taser shotgun.

OFFICER MATTHEW GAGNE: You can see from this distance it's very, very accurate. You know, centre mass is where I was aiming and that's exactly where I hit.

In Sanford, Maine, Officer Matthew Gagne has been testing the powerful new tasers and his department has placed a sizeable order.

OFFICER MATTHEW GAGNE: Any time that we can add another tool to our arsenal that is less than lethal the more perpensity that we have to actually utilise that, I would like to see every officer carrying a taser. It's the future in terms of, you know, trying to minimise officer risk and the citizen risk in physical, possible physical confrontations.

OFFICER BRET BURTON: We take it out of the armoury, we function check it before it's used.

On the other side of the country, in Portland, Oregon, police officer Bret Burton gears up for a Saturday night patrol.

REPORTER: How many weapons do you have at your disposal?

OFFICER BRET BURTON: The pistol, shotgun, as lethal weapons and then taser, pepper spray.

Like elsewhere, Portland is burdened with its share of drug-related crime and gang violence. Oregon's lax gun laws have only added to the dangers facing police.

OFFICER BRET BURTON: The way the gun laws are here, there's a lot of people that carry, there's a lot of people that carry concealed, or have permits to lawfully carry a concealed weapon. So we run into that quite a bit.

With reports of a man on a drunken rampage, Bret's been sent to intervene. Like other Portland cops, he carries a taser, but recently strict guidelines were introduced by the city to govern their use, and if the suspect is not resisting an arrest, as is the case here, using a taser is forbidden.

OFFICER BRET BURTON: This is what is going to happen, you are going to get in the back of the police car and then you are going to go to jail. All right - take a seat.

SUSPECT: Go fuck yourself loser, I'm not even goddamn scared of you.

OFFICER BRET BURTON: I don't expect you to be scared of me.

Yeah that's one of those circumstances where a taser could have been useful if he decided to fight us a little harder. If he wasn't complying with our orders to stop, we had to force him to the ground and we were able to get control of him pretty quickly, but if he would have started swinging, it's one of those situations where you might want to consider deploying a taser, getting some distance.

For now Portland's new taser guidelines appear to be working. It's been a steep learning curve for many of the city's cops, who achieved a certain notoriety for their tendency to taser first and ask questions later.

DAN HALSTED: I think I'm very lucky to be alive considering they tased me five times.

As a law-abiding citizen and a prominent member of Portland's arts community, Dan Halsted never imagined that he would feel the full force of a taser. But one evening, almost four years ago, as he walked home from a local pub, his life was transformed in a heartbeat.

DAN HALSTED: I'm walking and all of a sudden a flashlight comes on and I turn and I hear someone saying "get him", and I hear footsteps coming at me so I turned and I ran and I got tased and I felt like I was being set on fire, and I fell on the ground, I fell on my face and they tased me four more times.

It was a case of mistaken identity by police searching for graffitists. Cold comfort for Dan, who was later dumped at a local hospital without the slightest apology. Enraged by his ordeal, he decided to seek justice.

DAN HALSTED: We're known here in Portland to have a really nice, peaceful city, but we also have a really aggressive police force. My case, especially since I was an innocent person, I think people still think of it, I don't commit crime, so I don't need to worry about it, but I was just somebody walking home, which I think the jury in my case really connected with that, I think that really scared them.

NEWSREADER: Viewers may be surprised how much he's getting from the city.

REPORTER: A quarter of a million dollars.

It was Oregon's highest ever compensation pay-out over a taser incident, but remarkably Dan's case is far from unique. Throughout North America, thousands of cases of taser misuse have emerged. But one incident stands alone. The repeated tasering of Polish migrant, Robert Dziekanski, just hours after he arrived at Vancouver Airport.

It was his first ever flight. Due to join his mother in Canada, he arrived exhausted and confused. Unable to find her, he became visibly over wraught, but with complete disregard, police decided to silence him with a taser.

JUDGE THOMAS BRAIDWOOD: When they came, he stood up, put his hands beside himself and turned his palms outward and just stood there and within two minutes he was dead, shot with a taser.

He was withering on the floor, just withering, and turning him in circles and all his muscles shaking as he goes around in circles as he's dying. And it was terrible a terrible thing to see.

These graphic images of Dziekanski's dying moments fuelled widespread outrage and led to a judicial inquiry into the use of tasers in British Colombia. Judge Thomas Braidwood presided over what is essentially was the world's first high level probe into taser technology and how it was used.

JUDGE THOMAS BRAIDWOOD: I was very critical of the police. I called my first report 'Restoring Public Confidence' and I thought that was the name of the game after what had happened.

His report recommended that tasers should only be used in the face of an imminent bodily threat. That's now become policy throughout much of Canada, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the weapons use. Judge Braidwood's other key finding, that in some circumstances tasers can kill, drew a swift response from the company, which launched an extraordinary legal bid to quash his findings. That action would ultimately fail, but the company spokesman, Steve Tuttle, offers no apologies.

STEVE TUTTLE, TASER INTERNATIONAL: He left out nearly 100 important studies that dealt with precisely what his concerns were in some of these matters regarding Dziekanski. The Canadian perception on tasers has changed dramatically - it went from positive, to certainly neutral if not negative now, because perceptions become reality.

PETER GRAINGER, JOURNALIST: I think the atmosphere after Dziekanski died, the public was galvanised around this issue because it was such a horrible, visible death. People were shocked by it.

Peter Grainger was the first journalist to reach Robert Dziekanski's mother within hours of his death.

PETER GRAINGER: I can still feel and remember her sobs, her hot tears staining my shirt. And I'll never forget that. And she just cried and cried, for minutes and clung on to me. And so I made a promise to myself to find out why this happened and to try my best to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Five years on Peter Grainger continues to search for the truth about tasers.

PETER GRAINGER: Some of my taser files. Boxes full.

REPORTER: This is all taser-related material?

PETER GRAINGER: This is all taser-related - it's reports, it's lawsuits.

As Grainger began his research into tasers, he was shocked at what he saw was a lack of credible scientific data, on either the weapon, or its effects on human physiology.

PETER GRAINGER: I asked as many organisations as I could, including the RCMP, who tested these things, who verified the manufacturer's safety claims and the answer is no-one did. They trusted the manufacturer.

STEVE TUTTLE: It works, it's effective, it's accountable, it is doing what it supposed to do and it is a safer use of force.

With no independent studies to verify taser's safety claims, Grainger began trawling through the company's own manuals and spec sheets when he noticed something strange. Taser itself appeared to be backing away from its original assertion that the weapon is safe.

PETER GRAINGER: Ten years ago they said safe to use on any assailant. They called it a non-lethal weapon, very soon after that, after deaths started occurring, we got this phrase "less lethal". What the hell does "less lethal" mean? Does that mean sometimes when you use it someone dies? That sounds like Russian roulette to me.

STEVE TUTTLE: I didn't say the safest - I didn't say it's totally safe. There are risks, automatically, once you're involved in a dynamic situation.

REPORTER: But the company did say it was safe in the early days?

STEVE TUTTLE: We have not changed in that regard. It was safe, it still is safe. Now people want to get into safer, safest, non-lethal, less lethal.

But Grainger believes there's more than semantics at play. He's convinced that the company has known from the start that its device is problematic.

PETER GRAINGER: I wouldn't be surprised, knowing the United States, especially, that there could be congressional hearings on this. People could go to jail, for making false claims, misrepresentations. This is serious stuff. People have died.

Steve Tuttle says Grainger's claims are baseless.

STEVE TUTTLE: If it's that evil and dangerous, it would have not lasted five years. And yet here we are, 18 years later, after revolutionising law enforcement. Wouldn't we see with nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries - an increase in arrest-related deaths? 903 uses minimum a day? Shouldn't we be seeing a dramatic increase in lawsuits against Taser?

From humble beginnings, Taser International has grown into a $1 billion dollar high tech empire. And Steve Tuttle has granted me unfettered access to the company's Arizona based inner sanctum. It is here the space age robotic plant pumps out packs of taser ammunition at the rate of 15 a minute - barely keeping up with demand.

STEVE TUTTLE: Every taser deploys two probes. They're connected by wire back to a hand-held unit that that supplies the power to create the current to the body to then incapacitate somebody. To have that wire inside a cartridge is pretty tricky. As we're working our way backwards here, showing the inside of how a taser works.

Tuttle genuinely believes in the company's mantra that Taser's products continue to make the world a safer place.

STEVE TUTTLE: We make and manufacture our taser technology, we are building something from the ground up and we're putting it out the door and putting it in the hands of hopefully save a police officer's life or a suspect's life, and this is our life-saving technology.

But doubts about the product's safety were again raised earlier this year, with the death in Australia of Brazilian student, Roberto Laudisio Curti. He died shortly after being tasered by police in Sydney and Steve Tuttle is infuriated at how the case is being portrayed.

STEVE TUTTLE: This is one of the headlines, a typical headline here - if you will notice what I highlighted - 'Brazilian tasered to death, demand justice" and even further as if it wasn't just a headline that was incorrect - the reporter writes - "That's right, Laudisio Curti was tasered to death". This was one of hundreds of similar headlines that are out there. That is damage - that is an incredible challenge to Taser.

With more and more deaths blamed on tasers, Peter Grainger views the company's aggressive efforts to protect its image with disdain.

PETER GRAINGER: The people who lost loved ones don't care about the percentages, they don't care that one in a thousand or one in ten thousand dies proximal to a taser use. All they care about is that their loved one is gone and that the taser played a critical role in that.

Exactly how crucial that role is hasn't yet been proven, but a medical study released last month appears to add weight to claims that tasers can be lethal, with evidence that the taser's electrical pulse can provoke cardiac arrest. The results are significant, but a far cry from proving cause and effect: and few at Taser's headquarters with worried by its impact, confident that their modern weapons will weather the storm.

STEVE TUTTLE: The world is going to tasers whether we like it or not, because it's proven itself both in the field and in safety studies. But here is another reason - do you want to go back in time to the days of nightsticks, batons and cudgels to where you think it's okay to whack someone upside the head with a nightstick that's a caveman tool. We're better than that as a country and as a world we're better than that.

MARK DAVIS: If I had a choice, I think I'd rather be clubbed with a nightstick. Nick Lazaredes there and there's a background article on our website about tasers, how they work and all the arguments for and against their use. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.

Reporter/Camera
NICK LAZAREDES

Producer
DONALD CAMERON

Editors
MICAH MCGOWN
PETER TODD

Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

29th May 2012