Are Tasers really a non-deadly form of force?

The use of tasers by our law enforcement has been the butt of controversy for years, but the untimely death of Adam Spencer Johnson on April 22 brings this question back into the forefront of public debate. We’ve all seen the seemingly hilarious videos of people (like the UCLA college “bro”) getting tased but should tasers be legal and used in an unregulated way? And, of course, are tasers really safe?

Normally tasers are non-deadly, but can cause death in extreme cases. With increasing mortality evidence, the use of this potentially lethal apprehension method is attracting obvious criticism.

Groups such as Amnesty International have called a moratorium on the use of tasers. The UN committee overseeing the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment concluded in 2007 that electroshock weapons and stun guns a.k.a tasers, not only represent a form of torture, but a form of torture that can kill. Still, conventional wisdom is that tasers are a legitimate tool of law enforcement for use during mild outbreaks because they are usually non-deadly.

Police aren’t the only ones wielding these items; tasers can now be found at high schools, on college campuses and are carried by private citizens. Currently, stun guns are legal in 44 states nationwide, yet only 6 of these states enforce restrictions on these potentally deadly electroshock weapons.

There are countless YouTube videos of situations where taser use was seemingly justified and necessary, but also instances where it appears abusive and frightening. In my personal experience it can be a mixture. While waiting for a train in a New York City subway last summer, a man was tased repeatedly and tackled by police while his writhing body lay on the floor. From what I understood this man was under the influence of an elicit substance — he repeatedly yelled about being on crack, so I’ll have to take his word for it — and definitely was resisting arrest. The use of a taser in this situation seemed completely justified. But was it? Should an unarmed assailant arguing with police or resisting arrest be subject to something that looks like, feels like and is classified by a UN committee as torture?

Adam Spence Johnson died at Universal Studios in Orlando on Friday April 22 and was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital. According to police, he was unarmed yet violently resisting arrest. Certainly, the responding officer never intended to kill Johnson. Yet, he died by electrocution, something our society reserves for capital crimes. Mr. Johnson’s untimely death certainly gets me wondering if tasers are inhumane or a necessary evil for law enforcement.

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