Taser Talk

by digby

A reader from France alerted me to this interesting story about tasers:
A Paris court on Monday began hearing a libel case by the head of a company that supplies Taser stun guns to French police against a Trotskyist leader who said the weapons can be lethal.

The hearing began just a few days after Antoine Di Zazzo, head of SMP Technologies, was charged with spying on the man he is suing, Olivier Besancenot, leader of the Communist Revolutionary League (LCR).

SMP Technologies is seeking 50,000 euros (66,000 dollars) in damages from Besancenot because he said in a blog and a newspaper interview that Taser guns had "probably silenced more than 150 people in the US."

Ex-presidential candidate Besancenot says he was simply drawing attention to an Amnesty International report on Tasers that said that nearly 300 people have died around the world after being zapped with a Taser.

He is calling for a moratorium on the weapon's use while a full investigation is conducted into their safety.

Like Taser, Di Zazzo, whose company has supplied Tasers to the French army, police and gendarmerie since 2004, adamantly denies the guns can be lethal. Darts fired by the Taser pack a 50,000-volt punch that can paralyse targets from 10 yards (metres) away.

Di Zazzo was arrested last week, along with several people who included police officers, private detectives and a customs official, on suspicion of having spied on Besancenot and his partner and gaining access to their bank details.

Obviously the French libel laws are different from the US, but it does point out just what kind of hardball these taser companies play. Here in the US, they fight every allegation of wrongdoing with equal zeal. But they lost their first products liability case last summer and there will likely be more as the numbers and scope of taser misuse becomes more known.

But they do other, much more insidious, things as well. The taser company is pretty much the sole purveyor of information about the safety and use of the weapon. Representatives are relied upon as "experts" in court proceedings and police hearings. But this really takes the cake:

The Globe and Mail has reported on the cozy ties between Taser International and some coronors, the officials often responsible for investigating Taser related deaths; a cozy relationship which creates an appearance of bias on the part of one very prominent Canadian coronor.

In Taser firms picked up coroner's lecture tab the Globe reports that Taser International has paid hotel and travel expenses for prominent Canadian coronor Dr. James Cairns, Ontario's deputy chief coronor, who has given seminars "on the phenomenon of "excited delirium," a medically unrecognized term that the company often cites as a reason people die after being tasered". The article indicates that Dr. Cairns does not see any conflict of interest on his part. [The Globe & Mail also reports that Dr. Cairns admitted in testimony yesterday at an Ontario inquiry that he had helped shield disgraced pathologist Charles Smith.]

In Symposium aims to define 'excited delirium' DEATHS IN CUSTODY: TASER HELPS FUND RESEARCH the Globe and Mail reports on the second annual Sudden Death, Excited Delirium and In-Custody Death Conference underway in Las Vegas. Many of the nearly 20 talks touch on the role of Tasers. "The key issue is excited delirium, a collection of symptoms that is quickly becoming the leading explanation offered when a person dies in police custody or after a taser is used." Two researchers who presented disclosed that Taser International funds their research. As reported by the Globe & Mail, the Taser subsidized research presenters "conducted research on the negative effects of taser use on the human body; they found very few".

Obviously there is tremendous pressure, both the from industry and police, to keep the use of tasers unrestricted. And why not? There's a lot of money to be made and the police love having the ability to force compliance with their weapons, just as they used to love using a billy club for the same purpose. It makes their jobs easier, and I understand that. The problem is that in our system you aren't supposed to be punished before you have been found guilty of a crime. Certainly, we don't believe police should have the right to hurt or kill people they already have in custody, which is what often happens when they taser people who are already on the ground and handcuffed.

If police really did only use them in situations where they'd otherwise use a lethal weapon, then they would be a useful tool. But because they are considered "harmless" they are being used indiscriminately to make people compliant, which is not the same thing. They are dangerous weapons when used on people who have certain conditions the police can't know about ahead of time and they should be used very, very judiciously and they aren't.

And the main reason for this is the fact that the Taser company is spending a lot of money settling lawsuits and lobbying and greasing the palms of police officials and politicians. Their behavior suggests a company that knows very well its product is harmful and is using all the levers at its disposal to silence critics and keep the money flowing in for as long as it can.

And wait until the next generation of torture devices hits the streets.

Update: This one's just unbelievable. The good news is that they changed the rules: police can no longer taser people when they are sleeping.