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Georgia Protesters Angry over Use of Tasers

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Georgia Protesters Angry over Use of Tasers

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Georgia Protesters Angry over Use of Tasers

Georgia Protesters Angry over Use of Tasers

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About 150 people gathered in Atlanta Saturday to protest the use of taser guns by police. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the rally. It's one more sign of the growing controversy over tasers.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ain't going to let no TASER gun...

Protesters: (Singing) ...turn me around.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Don't let it...

Protesters: (Singing) ...turn me around.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Don't let it...

Protesters: (Singing) ...turn me around.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ain't going to let no TASER gun...

Protesters: (Singing) ...turn me around.

LUDDEN: That's the sound of a protest rally today in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the march to demand a moratorium on police use of TASER stun guns. SCLC head Charles Steele spoke to the marchers.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. CHARLES STEELE (Head, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): We are not going to tolerate another death. One is too many!

Protesters: Yeah.

Mr. STEELE: One is too many! We're not going to allow one!

LUDDEN: The SCLC wants Georgia to reopen an investigation into the death of Frederick Williams. He died in jail last year after officers used a TASER on him. The TASER works by firing two metal prods into the clothing or skin of its targets. This paralyzes them with 50,000 volts of electricity for up to 30 seconds. NPR's Laura Sullivan has covered the controversy surrounding the use of TASER and she joins me now.

Hi, Laura.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Hi.

LUDDEN: The folks in Georgia are not the only ones who are upset about police use of TASER stun guns. Can you tell me how widespread are these concerns across the country?

SULLIVAN: Well, what's happening in Georgia is really the first protest rally that we've seen when it comes to TASERs, but there is a growing sense of unease across the country among the public that TASERs are either causing deaths or being used improperly by police officers. And that's largely because of several specific cases that from the public's perception and from critics' perceptions, it seems a little bit egregious. Police TASE'd a 75-year-old woman in a nursing home in South Carolina. There was an 18-year-old who was TASE'd while he was strapped down, hands and legs, to a gurney. And one of the most controversial was a six-year-old elementary school student in January that was TASE'd in Miami.

LUDDEN: Now these are all by police?

SULLIVAN: These are all by police officers.

LUDDEN: And can you tell us, do we know why the police used a TASER on a six-year-old child?

SULLIVAN: The Miami police responded to an elementary school where a six-year-old had cornered himself with a piece of glass, and they were afraid that the child was going to use the glass to hurt himself or to cut himself, but these were two adult police officers. And so there's a lot of questions about why they were not able to just pick the child up and take the glass out of his hand. And the sense is, and what critics are reacting to, is that police officers are using TASERs not instead of shooting somebody but because they're using them to just control somebody if they don't respond to a command. There was a man who wouldn't come out from under a car, so the police TASE'd him. They don't want to chase somebody, so they TASE them. On the other hand, though, TASERs say, `Well, we're saving lives because they're not being shot.'

LUDDEN: And how's the maker of TASER reacting to all this?

SULLIVAN: TASER financially is having a lot of trouble this year. Their sales have declined 93 percent since last year. There are 8,000 police departments in the country that use TASERs. That's about 10 percent of the law enforcement community out in the United States right now, but their sales simply aren't going up the way they were last year. They're facing two dozen lawsuits. Last month, SEC elevated its inquiry into the company to a full-blown investigation of stock manipulation. They've got a lot of problems, too, with lobbying because a number of states are now trying to restrict TASERs. So they're having to spend a lot of money on their lobbying efforts as well as fighting more than two dozen lawsuits.

LUDDEN: Well, with all this controversy, is there evidence on whether or not a TASER stun can cause injury or even death?

SULLIVAN: There's no definitive answer yet. Amnesty International has linked 114 deaths to TASERs, people who died immediately after they were TASE'd. But those people for the most part, the majority of them, either had health problems that were unrelated or they were on drugs. In some of the other cases, people were TASE'd multiple times for long periods of time which there is some evidence to suggest that maybe their hearts went into cardiac arrest because of that. But the problems that medical examiners are having is that that causes multiple reasons for the death. Was it more the drugs or was it more the TASER? So it's hard for them to separate out did the TASER specifically cause the death or did the methamphetamines cause the death when it looks like it was actually a combination of both?

There are some studies under way right now. There's a Justice Department-sponsored study that's testing TASERs on a number of pigs, which has PETA riled, but TASER has its own medical scientists that say they're perfectly safe. Other organizations have theirs that say these were very dangerous, and if anybody has heart trouble, they don't even know they have heart trouble and they get TASE'd that they could run into trouble.

LUDDEN: So are police forces then cutting back on their use of TASERs?

SULLIVAN: A number of police departments across the country have shelved the TASERs, not that many, but several dozen have put them on the shelf until further studies are completed on TASERs. But what you see most often is that police departments are adopting guidelines on how to use them. And TASER has this week launched TASER Cam which is a camera that goes on the end of the TASER which is supposed to record video and audio when the TASER's fired.

LUDDEN: So they could respond to some of these accusations if it was misused. `Let's roll the tape.'

SULLIVAN: Exactly, so they can find out why exactly the Miami Police Department TASE'd a six-year-old.

LUDDEN: Now I understand, Laura, you actually have first-hand experience with the TASER.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. In the interest of full disclosure, I actually have been TASE'd for a story that I was doing for NPR and before I knew as much about TASERs as I do now. But it was one of the most painful experiences of my entire life.

LUDDEN: NPR's Laura Sullivan, thanks for speaking with us.

SULLIVAN: Thanks very much.

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