The UN's Committee Against Torture has declared that Taser use can constitute a form of torture, contrary to the UN's convention against the same.
The committee last Friday delivered its verdict after examining the Portuguese police force's adoption of the TaserX26, described as a weapon with "proven risks of harm or death" by an expert called to testify. The committee's statement said: "The use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use."
The UN's verdict comes in the wake of several Taser-related deaths in the US and Canada. On 19 November a man in Frederick City, Maryland, died in controversial circumstances after a deputy "struck [him] with a Taser and administered multiple shocks for several seconds".
On 14 October, 40-year-old Robert Dziekanski died in Vancouver International airport, apparently as the result of multiple taserings by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The incident was captured on video by an amateur cameraman who later released the footage amid accusations that the RCMP had tried to cover up the incident.
Last week, two men died in separate Taser incidents in Jacksonville, Florida. In the first case, on 18 November, 21-year-old Christian Allen was pulled over "because his [car] radio was too loud". When he and a passenger "took off running", as ABC puts it, a police gave chase, caught Allen and "used a Taser gun at least three times before [he] was taken into custody".
Allen was put in the back of a police car, "suffered a cardiac arrest and died later at a hospital".
The second fatality occured on 20 November after an unidentified man "crashed a car into a parked sport utility vehicle and then tried to enter an occupied home", police later said. During a violent altercation with officers in the middle of the street, the man was tasered up to three times, according to witnesses.
Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Chief Dwaine Senterfitt said: "From what I understand, it was about all the four officers could do to get him subdued and handcuffed. They began to struggle with this individual, got with him down on the ground. At some point, the officer was able to get his Taser and deploy his Taser. They continued to struggle with this individual. The Taser did not stop him from fighting."
When evetually subdued, the victim was taken to Shands-Jacksonville Medical Center "and died a short time later".
Back in Canada, meanwhile, 36-year-old Robert Knipstrom died yesterday in a British Colombia hospital five days after an "an altercation with police" in a shopping mall in Chilliwack during which "officers used a Taser gun to subdue him". ®
Taser International recently released a statement regarding the Vancouver fatality. It states: "This tragic incident appears to follow the pattern of many in-custody deaths or deaths following a confrontation with police. Historically, medical science and forensic analysis has shown that these deaths are attributable to other factors and not the low-energy electrical discharge of the TASER(r)."
It adds: "Cardiac arrest caused by electrical current is immediate. The video of the incident at the Vancouver airport indicates that the subject was continuing to fight well after the TASER application. This continuing struggle could not be possible if the subject died as a result of the TASER device electrical current causing cardiac arrest. His continuing struggle is proof that the TASER device was not the cause of his death. Further, the video clearly shows symptoms of excited delirium, a potentially fatal condition marked by symptoms of exhaustion and mania such as heavy breathing, profuse sweating, confusion, disorientation and violence toward inanimate objects."
Taser International founder and chairman Tom Smith concluded: "We are taken aback by the number of media outlets that have irresponsibly published conclusive headlines blaming the TASER device and/or the law enforcement officers involved as the cause of death before completion of the investigation. These sensationalistic media reports completely ignore the earmark symptoms of excited delirium shown in the video.
"TASER International is transmitting over 60 legal demand letters requiring correction of these false and misleading headlines and will take other actions as appropriate. These unsubstantiated, false headlines mislead the public and could adversely influence public policy in ways which could place the lives of both law enforcement and the public at greater risk."