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Op-Ed: Get a Grip on Taser Overuse (Albany Times-Union)

By Corey Stoughton

Medical experts released a report last week confirming for the first time that Tasers — the electronic stun guns that are becoming ubiquitous among cops in New York — can kill you. The report says that these weapons, which deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity through barbed wires or direct contact with the skin, can set off irregular heart rhythms and deadly heart attacks.

This medical evidence comes as no surprise to families of the hundreds of people who have died after being shocked by an officer with a Taser. For years, advocates have criticized the rapid proliferation of Tasers among law enforcement, warning that agencies have rushed to deploy them without adequate training and sound policies to ensure that they are used safely. Over the last 10 years, more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies have introduced Tasers to their officers.

Defenders of Tasers say that the weapons are less dangerous than guns. That argument assumes that Tasers are used as a substitute for deadly force. But they are not.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union published the results of a survey of more than 800 use-of-force reports from eight police departments across the state. The data showed that 85 percent of Taser discharges in New York involve people who were not armed or even thought to be armed. In more than half of the reports, officers using Tasers failed to document any facts that would justify the use of a Taser under guidelines established by law enforcement experts from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum.

Officers are not only using Tasers against the wrong people, they are using them in ways that make deadly heart attacks more likely. The NYCLU’s report showed that more than a quarter of Taser incidents in New York involved shocks directly to the chest area, despite explicit warnings from the weapons’ manufacturer that targeting the chest increases the risk of cardiac arrest.

A third of the incidents involved multiple or prolonged shocks, which experts have also associated with greater risks of death. And 40 percent of the incidents involved particularly vulnerable people such as the elderly, children, the visibly infirm and people who were seriously intoxicated or mentally ill.

Why are New York police officers using Tasers so irresponsibly?

The answer is simple: bad policies and bad training. The NYCLU’s review of various agencies’ use of force policies showed that, with the notable exception of the NYPD, the policies do not comply with the recommendations of national law enforcement experts that have developed model policies of Taser use. The vast majority of New York agencies studies appear to rely exclusively on training materials provided by Taser International, the weapons’ manufacturer — an approach that experts and Taser International itself condemn.

The lure of new gadgets is familiar to anyone who has ripped into the box of a new smartphone or gaming system. But Tasers are not toys, they are weapons. Police departments must stop exposing New Yorkers to the risk of death until they reform their use of force policies and training.

The state can play an important role here, by using the power of the Department of Criminal Justice Service’s Municipal Police Training Council to encourage universal, sound reforms and to encourage local agencies to keep better data to monitor whether the use of Tasers follows expert guidelines or puts New Yorkers at unnecessary risk of injury and death.

Stoughton is a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the primary author of the NYCLU’s 2011 report, “Taking Tasers Seriously: The Need for Better Regulation of Stun Guns in New York.”

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