Stunning the Public into Submission

Ask the pregnant woman who refused to sign a traffic ticket. She'll confirm: it's more convenient for police to discharge a Taser than to negotiate verbally or use other problem-solving strategies when dealing with the public. A 58-year-old homeless woman with a mental illness in Vermont will tell a similar story. Her crime was refusing to move from where she was standing outside a local convenience store.

Abuse of electroshock weapons is commonplace when individuals are slow to follow orders or "cop an attitude." The teenage baseball fan in Philadelphia learned this the painful way. Each time police discharge Tasers when no threat to human life exists, they breach norms for the use of force. Force should be used only where "strictly necessary" and in proportion to the threat posted, according to the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. The Police Executive Research Forum advises that stun guns should only be directed at persons actively exhibiting aggression. And the UN Committee Against Torture has called use of the Taser X26 a form of torture because of the degree of pain the weapon inflicts.

In addition to being the state where the baseball fan was shocked, Pennsylvania hosted the debut of military sonic weapons against civilian protesters at the 2009 G-20 Summit. Known as Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs), these weapons have been used to disperse crowds in Iraq and repel pirates in the Gulf of Aden. They are more insidious than other so called less-lethal munitions because they leave no visible marks and can cause permanent hearing loss. While LRADs are relatively new in the United States, Tasers, rubber bullets and other potentially lethal weapons are altogether too readily used by law enforcement on civilians.

Statistics detailing the harm that Tasers cause might help curb their use. But accurate statistics do not exist. That is in part because medical examiners across the country are afraid of retribution by Taser International, the leading manufacturer of Tasers. The corporation has sued several medical examiners for listing their products as either contributing to or as being the official cause of death.

Coroners may, however, log deaths from Taser-related incidents in the National Association of Medical Examiners' "Death Registry" database in order to assist the National Institute of Justice identify deaths in which electric stun guns were used. This is just a start. The public should express outrage at the increasing use of electro-muscular disruption technology by law enforcement against civilians in any situation other than life-threatening ones.