ACLU Urges Rhode Island Police to Shun "Stun Guns"

September 2, 2004 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI–The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today urged police departments across the state not to purchase Taser “”stun guns,”” a controversial electroshock weapon that many U.S. law enforcement agencies, including four in Rhode Island, have begun adding to their arsenal.

“”Recent reports from several sources have both challenged the guns’ safety and noted that they may be prone to gratuitous use,”” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. “”Until the many questions that have been raised about Taser guns have been satisfactorily answered, Rhode Island police departments should not jump to join other agencies in the purchase of this weapon.””

The Taser gun, which can shoot 50,000 volts of electricity through a person’s body to cause temporary paralysis, is marketed as a “”non-lethal”” alternative to handguns. However, the ACLU said that Tasers appear to be commonly used against unarmed persons or in other situations where deadly force is not authorized.

Taser International, the Arizona-based company that manufactures the weapon, claims that the guns have never caused a fatality. However, national news reports have begun to question that claim. The New York Times recently reported that six people died in June after being shot by Tasers. Similarly, a study of Taser-related deaths conducted by the Arizona Republic found that in several cases, medical examiners’ reports listed Taser shocks as a contributing cause of death. However, because none of the reports ruled that the Taser guns were solely responsible for the deaths, Taser International continues to market its product to police departments as a safe weapon. Despite the controversy, no government study has been conducted to evaluate the Taser’s safety or its effect on victims.

“”Because the Taser gun is believed to have no lasting effects, some data suggest that officers are more willing to deploy it against suspects who are not armed, are questionably threatening, or are already restrained,”” Brown said.

A study conducted by the sheriff’s office in Orange County, Florida found a 58 percent increase in the use of force since Tasers were adopted there. Taser International has said that 85 percent of shock recipients are not armed.

The ACLU also said evidence shows that drug and alcohol use may make a subject more prone to electroshock injury – or death – from the Taser. This is problematic because the Taser is often used to subdue intoxicated people.

According to published reports, the Newport, Woonsocket, Bristol and North Providence police forces already use the weapons. In July, the Providence Police Department became the latest Rhode Island force to purchase Taser guns, although only designated officers are being given access to them.

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