Tasers are used by 15,000 law enforcement and military bodies in the U.S. as an alternative to lethal weapons when force is necessary to subdue a person in a threatening situation.
However, recent criticism of police use of force has led to the scrutiny of police use of Tasers, and whether they are actually safer than guns and other weapons.
When fired, Tasers emit a 50,000-volt shock of electricity to the body, which overrides the central nervous system of whoever was struck, leading to an instant collapse as well as uncontrollable muscle contractions, according to a report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
The fall, due to lack of muscle control, is often the cause of more serious injuries relating to the use of a Taser. In general, however, the company claims the shock doesn’t typically cause serious or lasting harm to the average person. Instead, the Taser International website says Tasers have saved more than 140,000 lives, and that injuries are reduced by up to 60 percent when alternative means of force are used.
This may not be true, however, for a significant number of people who are not considered average in terms of health.
For pregnant women and those who have certain health problems including cardiovascular issues, mental illness, heart conditions and high blood pressure, a Taser shock can cause serious injuries and death in some cases.
Dontay Ivy, an Albany man with heart problems and paranoid schizophrenia, died after being shot with a Taser and wrestling police to the ground earlier this year. The cause of death is still being investigated, but Ivy’s family plans to press charges for negligence, racial profiling and excessive force.
Others extreme cases, like that of South Carolina man Walter Scott, involve the use of a Taser in combination with other weapons as the cause of death. North Charleston police officer Michael Slager was fired and later charged with murder for using excessive force against Scott.
These cases bring into question whether Tasers are an acceptable method for police to control a situation, or if their use encourages unnecessary force.
Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who researches police use of force, said in the New York Times that Tasers could be effective tools when used properly, but he cautioned that many officers in the United States had come to rely on them excessively.
“Officers need to be spending more time de-escalating situations, instead of resorting to the use of this very convenient tool,” said Emma Andersson, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The jury’s still out on whether or not it’s lethal force, but it’s not nothing; it’s very dangerous.”
Others, like Taser International’s spokesman Steve Tuttle, who argues that they are no magic bullet, but they are “safe, effective and accountable” devices.
Currently, no extensive report on the use of Tasers exists, but it seems that all parties can agree that Tasers are dangerous, and must be used with caution. A guideline by the U.S. Justice Department from 2011 sets the standard, stating that Tasers are weapons, and should be used out of necessity, not convenience.