A Taser is an electroshock weapon that uses Electro-Muscular Disruption (EMD) technology to cause neuromuscular incapacitation or NMI and strong muscle contractions through the involuntary stimulation of both the sensory nerves and the motor nerves. The Taser is not dependent on pain compliance making it highly effective on subjects with high pain tolerance. For this reason it is preferred by law enforcement over traditional stun guns and other electronic control weapons. Currently there are two main police models, the M26 and X26. Both come with various accessories, including a laser sight and mounted digital video camera that can record in low-light situations. Taser International is also marketing a civilian model called the C2 model.
Tasers were introduced as less-lethal weapons to be used by police to subdue fleeing, belligerent, or potentially dangerous subjects, often when what they consider to be a more lethal weapon would have otherwise been used. The use of Tasers has become controversial following instances of Taser use which have resulted in injury and death.
Taser International CEO Rick Smith has testified in Taser-related lawsuit that the catalyst for the development of the device was the "shooting death of two of his high school acquaintances" by a "guy with a legally licensed gun who lost his temper. In 1993, Rick Smith and his brother Tim began to investigate what they called "safer use of force option[s] for citizens and law enforcement." At their Scottsdale, Arizona facilities, the brothers worked with the "... original TASER inventor, Jack Cover" to develop a "non-firearm TASER electronic control device." The 1994 AIR TASER Model 34000 had an "anti-felon identification (AFID) system" to prevent the likelihood that the device would be used by criminals; upon use, it released many small pieces of paper containing the serial number of the Taser device. The US firearms regulator, the ATF, stated that the AIR TASER was not a firearm. In 1999, Taser International developed an "ergonomically handgun shaped device called the ADVANCED TASER M-series systems" which used a "patented neuromuscular incapacitation (NMI) technology." In May 2003, Taser International released a new weapon called the TASER X26, which used "Shaped Pulse Technology."
The use of the Taser has come under scrutiny in Canada following national media coverage of the 2007 Robert Dziekański Taser incident in which a Polish immigrant died after being tased by Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver's airport. As a result several official reviews of Taser safety are underway in Canada and two police forces have put large orders of the device on hold.
A Taser fires two small dart-like electrodes, which stay connected to the main unit by conductive wire and propelled by small compressed nitrogen charges similar to some air gun or paintball marker propellants. The air cartridge contains a pair of electrodes and propellant for a single shot and is replaced after each use. There are a number of cartridges designated by range, with the maximum at 35 feet (10.6 meters). Cartridges available to non-law enforcement consumers are limited to 15 feet (4.5 meters). The electrodes are pointed to penetrate clothing and barbed to prevent removal once in place. Earlier Taser models required the electrodes' barbs to penetrate the skin, but newer versions (X26, C2) use a "shaped pulse" that increases effectiveness in the presence of barriers. Early models had difficulty in penetrating thick clothing, but the 'pulse' models are designed to bring down a subject wearing up to a Level III body armor vest.
Some Taser models, particularly those used by police departments, also have a "Drive Stun" capability, where the Taser is held against the target without firing the projectiles, and is intended to cause pain without incapacitating the target. Taser defines "Drive Stun" as "the process of using the EMD weapon [Taser] as a pain compliance technique. This is done by activating the EMD and placing it against an individual’s body. This can be done without an air cartridge in place or after an air cartridge has been deployed."
A Las Vegas police document says "The Drive Stun causes significant localized pain in the area touched by the Taser, but does not have a significant effect on the central nervous system. The Drive Stun does not incapacitate a subject but may assist in taking a subject into custody. "Drive Stun" was used in the UCLA Taser incident and the University of Florida Taser incident. It is also known as "dry tasing", "contact tasing", or "drive tasing".
According to the analysis of the first 900 police Taser incidents by the Houston Chronicle, no crime was being committed and no person was charged in 350 of those cases. In addition, it has been reported that the Houston Police Department has "shot, wounded, and killed as many people as before the widespread use of the stun guns" and has used Tasers in situations that would not warrant lethal or violent force, such as "traffic stops, disturbance and nuisance complaints, and reports of suspicious people." In Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, police found that 25 to 30 percent of the situations in which a Taser was employed met the criteria for the use of deadly force.
Although Tasers were originally proposed as alternatives to lethal force, they have entered routine use as a way to incapacitate suspects or as a "pain compliance" method at times when the use of firearms would not be justifiable. The American Civil Liberties Union alleges that, since 1999, at least 148 people have died in the United States and Canada after being shocked with Tasers by police officers. Police departments counter that while Tasers were used to subdue these individuals, their in-custody deaths were un-related to their encounter, and could have likely been caused by more traditional police impact weapons (like batons).
A recent development has included marketing Tasers to the general public. A line of pink tasers are specifically being targeted to women. The Taser website states "Who says safety can't be stylish?" in reference to its "latest designer TASER C2 colors" and patterns, which include leopard print patterns and a range of colors.
The direct source for this information comes from an independent report produced by Compliance Strategy Group for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The report is called An Independent Review of the Adoption and Use of Conducted Energy Weapons by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (also referred to as the Kiedrowski Report). In the report that is available through access to information, the authors argued that the CEW was, for several years after its adoption by the RCMP, erroneously characterized as a prohibited "weapon" under the Criminal Code, as opposed to a prohibited "firearm." This misunderstanding was subsequently incorporated into the RCMP's operational policies and procedures as well as those of other police services in Canada. While the most recent RCMP operational manual, completed in 2007, correctly refers to the CEW as a prohibited firearm, a number of consequences of this error in classification remain to be dealt with by both the RCMP and other Canadian police services. Consequently, it could be argued the police in Canada may not have had the proper authority under their provincial policing Acts and Regulation to use the CEW in the first place. The point of unauthorized use by the police was also raised by Dirk Ryneveld, British Columba's Police Complaint Commissioner at the Braidwood inquiry on June 25, 2008.
Taser International claims that Tasers are safe, but critics disagree, citing the number of deaths occurring after Taser use. Amnesty International has documented over 245 deaths that occurred after the use of Tasers. Amnesty International Canada and other civil liberties organizations have argued that a moratorium should be placed on Taser use until research can determine a way for them to be safely used.
A number of studies have investigated the potential dangers of Taser use. They have included examination of incident records, limited human testing, and experimental studies on pigs. Although tests on police and military volunteers have shown Tasers to function appropriately on a healthy, calm individual in a relaxed and controlled environment, Amnesty International asserts that they "do not take into account real life use of Tasers by law enforcement agencies, such as repeated or prolonged shocks and the use of restraints".
Taser International recommends that users be tased during training. At least one police official has been tased to demonstrate confidence in the device's safety. Police officers in at least five US states have filed lawsuits against Taser International claiming they suffered serious injuries after being shocked with the device during training classes.
While their intended purpose is to circumvent the use of lethal force such as guns, the actual deployment of Tasers by police in the years since Tasers came into widespread use is claimed to have resulted in more than 180 deaths as of 2006. It is still unclear whether the Taser was directly responsible for the cause of death, but several legislators in the U.S. have filed bills clamping down on them and requesting more studies on their effects. Despite the growing controversy, a study funded by the U.S. Justice Department asserted that majority of people tasered from July 2005 to June 2007 suffered no injury. A study led by William Bozeman, of the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, of nearly 1,000 persons subjected to Taser use, concluded that 99.7% of the subjects had either minor injuries, such as scrapes and bruises, or none at all; while three persons suffered injuries severe enough to need hospital admission, and two other subjects died. Their autopsy reports indicated neither death was related to the use of a Taser.
In October and November 2007, four individuals died after being tasered in Canada, leading to calls for review of its use. The highest-profile of these cases was that of Robert Dziekański, a non-English speaking man from Poland who died in less than two minutes after being tasered by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at the Vancouver International Airport, October 14, 2007. Followed by three other post-Taser deaths, this incident led Amnesty International to demand an end to Taser use in Canada.
On December 12, 2007, in response to the death of Robert Dziekański, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day requested that the federal Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP (CPC) prepare recommendations for immediate implementation. The CPC report recommended to "immediately restrict the use of the conducted energy weapon (CEW)" by reclassifying it as an "impact weapon. The commission released its report on 18 June 2008; recommendations include restricting use to experienced officers (5 years or more), providing medical attention to those who have been zapped, improving previous documentation of specific deployment of the weapon, among other things.
In June 2008, a federal jury ordered Taser International to pay the family of Robert Heston, Jr., $6 million in punitive and compensatory damages for the 2005 death of the man who died a day after being shocked repeatedly by officers using Tasers. According to a press report, the jury "said Taser had failed to warn police in Salinas, California, that prolonged exposure to electric shock from the device could cause a risk of cardiac arrest.
Police psychologist Mike Webster testified at a British Columbia inquiry into Taser deaths that police have been "brainwashed" by Taser International to justify "ridiculously inappropriate" use of the electronic weapon. He called "excited delirium" a "dubious disorder" used by Taser International in its training of police.
Supporters of taser use in schools argue that merely switching on the device, and threatening to use it, can be effective in frightening violent or uncooperative students into desisting from inappropriate behaviour, if verbal reprimands have not succeeded. Critics counter that tasers may interact with preexisting medical complications such as medications, and may even contribute to someone's death as a result. Thus, critics say, they should either be prohibited altogether in schools, or classified as possibly lethal weapons and as a consequence, should be regulated very tightly. Critics also argue that using a taser on a minor, and especially a young child, is effectively cruel and abusive punishment, and therefore it should be banned on the same grounds that other, older forms of physical punishment such as canings have been banned from use in many schools.
In response to the claims that the pain inflicted by the use of the Taser could potentially constitute torture, Tom Smith, the Chairman of the Taser Board, has stated that the U.N. was "out of touch" with the needs of modern policing.
'' "Pepper spray goes on for hours and hours, hitting someone with a baton breaks limbs, shooting someone with a firearm causes permanent damage, even punching and kicking - the intent of those tools is to inflict pain, ... with the Taser, the intent is not to inflict pain; it's to end the confrontation. When it's over, it's over.
Tasers may also not leave the telltale markings that a conventional beating might. The American Civil Liberties Union has also raised concerns about their use.