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Publisher's Letter

Tasers can be lethal

There has been a lot of concern in Australia recently over the use of Tasers by police. One person died in Queensland after allegedly being “Tasered” 28 times and there have been a number of cases where people were subdued by Tasers in situations where their use did not seem to be appropriate. Overseas, there have also allegedly been many deaths caused by Tasers.

On the one hand, police use of Tasers to subdue offenders is far more preferable than using guns. On the other hand, Tasers do inflict very severe electric shocks. How severe? Well, if I was confronted with the possibility that I was going to be hit with a Taser, I would immediately submit! I have had enough electric shocks in my lifetime to know that I don’t want any more.

The truth is that very few people ever experience an electric shock of any kind unless it is the static discharge from filing cabinets in an office or from a car as you alight on a hot dry day. Such shocks are mere pin-pricks. More severe are those that some people might have experienced from electric fences on farm properties or perhaps from the high-energy ignition on modern cars – the latter can really give a severe shock. And some repair technicians could attest to getting severe shocks from the EHT supplies in colour TV sets or in other high-voltage circuitry. For the most part though, none of the shocks from these sources can compare with the severity of shock that could be delivered by a Taser.

The most severe shock that I can remember was when I was working in one of the laboratories at Ducon Condenser Company, way back in the 1960s. I was a cadet engineer and I was loading up racks of carbon resistors for testing at 500V AC. I had done this job before and it was pretty straightforward. Only this time I got things out of sequence and attempted to push a resistor onto the rack prongs while voltage was still applied. My involuntary screams stopped work on the entire floor as people rushed to see what was happening. In truth, it was a lucky escape as the voltage was applied right across my body. These days such test set-ups would have safety interlocks to prevent such a hazard.

It is difficult to describe the sensation of such a severe electric shock. Imagine having your entire body violently clamped and simultaneously vibrated. It is extremely painful! After a severe shock like that, you feel very weak. Your whole nervous system seems to have been “jangled”, as indeed it has, and it can take quite a few hours to recover.

I have no doubt that a Taser would deliver a shock at least as severe. But it can also deliver the same severe shock to a person many times in quick succession. And that presents a real moral dilemma. Using a Taser to subdue a violent offender, even using it several times in succession, may be justified. But once that person is overcome, any further use constitutes torture, in my opinion.

I also know that police are sometimes placed in highly dangerous situations where their own lives are in jeopardy and a Taser can be the necessary deterrent to defuse such situations. However, I wonder if perhaps there is an inevitable temptation to be “trigger happy”. I would like to think that where a Taser is brought into play, the potential victim is warned that it will be applied. In fact, apparently that did happen just recently in New Zealand and the person concerned immediately surrendered; a good result.

I do not know what is involved in police training for the use of Tasers but if they are going to be in general use, they should not be under any illusion – Tasers are a very powerful weapon. Depending on the victim’s constitution and the circumstances of use, I have little doubt that a Taser could be lethal.

Leo Simpson

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