Note: The following was published in The Vancouver Sun. Since it was written on July 19, 2005, eight more people have died after being Tasered by police, for a total of 147.

With apologies to Bob Dylan, who is here in Vancouver this week for three sold-out shows, how many times must Tasers be used, before they’re forever banned?

Tasers have been involved in the cases of six people who have died in police custody in the past week, bringing the total of North American deaths following police stun-gun use since 1999 to 139. The latest to die were seventeen year old Kevin Omas of Euless, Texas, who died July 12 after having been shot three times by a police Taser, Otis G. Thrasher, 42 of Butte, Montana (July 15), Ernesto Valdez of Phoenix, Arizona (July 15), Paul Sheldon Saulnier, 42 of Digby, Nova Scotia (July 15), Carlos Casillas Fernandez, 31 of Santa Rosa, California (July 16) and Michael Leon Critchfield, 40 of West Palm Beach, Florida (July 17). Each of these people, and the 133 who preceded them, left behind grieving loved ones.

With so many deaths, one would expect more of a public outcry. It is true that police departments in Chicago, Illinois and Birmingham, Alabama have discontinued use of Tasers and that groups like Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have all been outspoken in their criticism of the use of stun-guns. However, public concern has been muted, likely because the law enforcement community and the manufacturer have waged an effective public relations campaign, asserting that the dozens of reported fatalities have nothing to do with Taser deployment. It is high time for a closer look at these claims.

The Taser is a “conducted energy weapon” that is marketed as a non-lethal force option for police. It is manufactured by TASER International Inc., a public company based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Taser (an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle) is designed to fire two fishhook-like barbs into a person’s skin which enable 50,000 volts of electricity to be transmitted into the body through wires attached to the weapon. In contrast, a typical cattle prod emits 5,000 volts of electricity. The current causes excruciating pain and causes the central nervous system to shut down, resulting in loss of voluntary muscle control. When used as recommended, i.e. a single burst of no longer than five seconds, the subject is usually incapacitated so police can apply handcuffs or other appropriate restraints. The Taser is not intended to be an alternative to lethal force. In other words, if police are confronted by a suspect armed with a lethal weapon like a handgun, they are justified in using lethal force themselves. The Taser would not usually be the appropriate option.

In principle, the weapon is a good idea. It gives police officers an additional tool whereby they can restrain a potentially violent subject without risk of injury to themselves. If stun guns were entirely safe, it would be hard to argue against giving the police every advantage to assist them in doing their difficult and often dangerous jobs. However, the Taser has frequently been used against unarmed people in various states of medical distress. Many of these people have died, often after receiving repeated jolts of electricity.

The sad case of Richard T. Holcomb is but one example. The previously healthy eighteen year old was found shirtless and muttering incoherently in an Ohio horse pasture at 1:00 a.m. on May 28, 2005, following his high school graduation party. Police responded to a local resident’s call and Tasered Holcomb, who died soon after. His death prompted a march on Akron police headquarters by a large group of protesters. Like most other similar cases, the cause of his death remains unclear.

Police and TASER International spokespeople always assert that the use of the weapon does not cause death. They point to Taser’s studies on pigs, and attribute human deaths to drug abuse, “excited delirium” or perhaps pre-existing medical conditions. They say that the victims would all have died anyway, even if Tasers had not been used to subdue them. If these claims were true, one would expect a similar epidemic of police in-custody deaths occurring in those many jurisdictions that do not yet employ Tasers. This year alone, 45 North Americans have died after being Tasered by police. If “excited delirium”, a controversial phenomenon that attributes cardiac arrest to over-excitement resulting from the arrest and restraint process, caused these deaths, one would expect deaths to occur with similar frequency in the cases of people arrested by police using more conventional methods. I have tried in vain to locate any indication that dozens of people have died this year of “excited delerium” where Tasers weren’t involved.

Furthermore, there is a news report from Oregon that a previously healthy 50 pound dog died recently after being repeatedly Tasered by police. How will TASER International and police officials explain this death away? It is doubtful that the dog was high on cocaine. It seems questionable that an animal could react with “excited delirium” to the presence of police. If the deaths of 139 humans don’t raise serious questions about Taser use, maybe the death of this dog will.

In my view, there simply has not been enough impartial testing of Tasers to rule out the weapon’s potentially serious health and safety implications. Here in Canada, where 13 people have died after being Tasered, there has been no rigorous independent analysis whatsoever.

How many more must die before something is done? The answer, it seems, is blowing in the wind.