U.N. Calls Tasers Torture

The United Nations Committee Against Torture declares that electronic stun guns — or Tasers — are a form of torture that can kill. Eugene O'Donnell, lecturer of law and police studies and John Jay College, the City University of New York, looks at the decision.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Six people have died in the last week in the U.S. and Canada after incidents involving the use of Tasers by police.

That's according to a report by CBS News and the Associated Press. Taser International says its devices have never been proven to have caused any deaths. And in a statement in response to one recent incident in which a Polish man died after being Tasered in a Vancouver airport, Taser International put out this quote, "This tragic incident appears to follow the pattern of many in custody deaths or deaths following a confrontation with police. Historically, medical science and forensic analysis has shown that these deaths are attributable to other factors not the low energy electrical discharge of the Taser," end quote.

But the deaths come after a recent spate of highly-publicized incidents involving police using Tasers on suspects from the Don't Tase me, Bro guy in Florida to a man who disputed a traffic ticket in Utah, got Tasered for not wanting to sign his ticket. This leads to questions about Tasers and others what they call intermediate weapons: When should police use them?

Eugene O' Donnell lectures about law and police studies at New York John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He's a former police officer.

Hello, Eugene.

Professor EUGENE O' DONNELL (Law and Police Studies, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York): Hey, Mike. How are you?

PESCA: I'm well. When does a cop use a Taser?

Prof. O' DONNELL: Well, it's supposed to be an intermediate weapon between physical force, ordinary force or even at the low end when you give command to the people. If they're compliant, no need to go to a weapon. And then at the extreme end of the equation is a deadly force. So this is supposed to give an officer something between verbal commands, physical force and the need to use deadly force.

PESCA: I think it's all in that gray area in between. Besides saying don't do it and using deadly force, what else can there be before there is a Taser? What other options does a police officer have?

Prof. O' DONNELL: Well, police officers operate, you know, a lot in gray areas. One of the top, you know, issues here, really, is why are the police involved with somebody's things, I think some of the things you just mentioned, you know, setting up a story, you really wonder why the police sometimes have called it to these events and why are they put front and center. I think sometimes, the recipe for the problems you have, you know, the problem that you have is the police are inserted at these things that they shouldn't be inserted into like the college student…

PESCA: Right, the kid. Someone's loud her a lecture. Why is a policeman there?

Prof. O' DONNELL: How is that a police - how is that a police issue? That's a university administration issue and sometimes university administration people, you know - are in short supply when you have that kind of an issue. So they should be in front outside or the cops should be kept, you know, at the back. Some of these incidents that have been reported about Tasers are really, you know, the guy refuses to sign a ticket. Why can't you have a jurisdiction like we have in New York where you don't have to sign a ticket? You have these kinds of unnecessary confrontations which are often, although, you know, the beginning of these escalations of force.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Sir, does it also, sir, have to identify that he will use the Taser? Does he have to tell the person, comply or else, this is an option?

Prof. O' DONNELL: You know, in theory, there would be illogic to the escalation. Unfortunately, you know, the history of this is that some very minor confrontations end up very tragically and escalate quite rapidly. So if they also have a luxury to just use commands in the person who's complying, they could do that. But regrettably, you do have many situations at which things go from zero to 60, you know, in a second. Would you step out of your car and immediately the officer's attacked or there's an escalation of force by the person that the officer is encountering.

PESCA: For the record, we should also point out that in Utah where that YouTube incident where a man was Tasered for not signing his ticket. Did police could have just given him a warning? That's the law in Utah also just like in New York. But what I wanted to ask you is Taser is made by this one company called Taser. Do they dictate the training? Is there a standardized training among all jurisdictions? Or is it just catch as catch can for with, what police departments use what training for the Taser?

Prof. O' DONNELL: There is recommended training. One of the problems even in the country, of course, is there's almost 20,000 police departments and it's a real hodgepodge of departments. Some departments invest heavily in training, some departments less heavily. And training is often kind of sacrifice because there's a cost to it. And you probably could have a lot more hands on training across the board, including in this area. But any kind of training that you have it means that you have fewer officers on patrol and there's a cost factor to that.

PESCA: You know, one of the problems with Tasers or one of the reasons that there is a perception of the problems is that so many of these incidents get a lot of media coverage. It's hard to find really good data because it's all different police departments and I don't know if anyone, federally, is putting together the data. But like I said, the media gets a hold of the tape and they'll play an incident and this is NPR's reporting on a Taser incident.

Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Take the case of Frederick Williams.

Mr. FREDERICK WILLIAMS: Don't kill me. I have a family to support. I've calmed down.

SULLIVAN: On the video, Williams is screaming, don't kill me, I have a family to support, I've calmed down - as several officers carry him into the Gwinnett County Detention Center in a suburb of Atlanta.

PESCA: You know, Eugene O' Donnell, I don't think I've ever seen a police shooting on tape - maybe you can remind me of one - but I must - I've seen dozens and dozens of Tasering - is it just because Tasers happen, Taserings happen so much more often?

Prof. O' DONNELL: I don't know why that is. But, I mean, I think any use of force either for all kinds of uses of force now that are recorded on tape, I don't think they ever look good. I think we have to remind our self that the core function of the police - and this is why it's serious business to insert the policemen to these things - the core of thing that makes them different than everybody else is that they're authorized and empowered and equipped to use force on people. So if you're calling to incidents like some of the incidents they get called to, you shouldn't express surprise later on when force ends up being the end result of that.

PESCA: You were a cop before Tasers were available. What intermediate weapons did you have? How did you use them?

Prof. O' DONNELL: Well, you know, in theory, we had nightsticks and you always wonder and sometimes when you have these incidents, you ask yourself, how competent officers are and how confident officers are in the range of weapons that they had. We had nightsticks, to some extent, even radios which were sort of an unauthorized weapon but could be quite effective. Obviously, to use force decisively quickly sometimes vitiates the need to go higher and actually can - it can be a better result. Sometimes, officers hesitate in using force where they should use force. They should preempt things and they let things kind of spin out of control. They sometimes - maybe - should be arresting people earlier rather than waiting and it's often when they hesitate that things can really spin out of control and you have an even worse ending a tragedy, somebody dying in custody.

PESCA: Tasers are more and more popular with police departments. The stock of the Taser company was very high, came down a little now. It's rebounding just because so many police departments are ordering Tasers. Do you think the Justice Department or someone needs to really do a big investigation into how they're being used?

Prof. O' DONNELL: I think that the use of force in a free society by the police, and arresting and detaining people is a huge issue. And I think there's too many people in the country that kind of give it short shrift and say it's not a big deal.

Any use of force is a big deal and I think all those kinds of things should be looked at. But my view is - and I've been talking a lot in New York City about mentally ill people - a lot of this is dumped on the cops…

PESCA: Yeah.

Prof. O' DONNELL: …and the cops are the worst people, worst equipped people to deal with some of these situations. So my first offer to anyone who's thinking of the idea, the idea of the issue is to try to offload some of the stuff away from the police into areas where the people have the competencies and the skills to deal with these issues.

PESCA: Eugene O' Donnell lectures about Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He's also a former police officer.

Thank you, Eugene.

Prof. O' DONNELL: Thanks a lot.

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