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U.N. Committee Against Torture: Tasering is a “Form of Torture”

by Matt Clarke

On November 23, 2007, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) concluded that using the Taser X-26 electric stun gun is a “form of torture” that “can even provoke death.” CAT is charged with overseeing the application of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, of which the United States is a signatory.

CAT recommended that Portugal, which recently equipped its police force with the X-26, “consider renouncing the use of electric weapons” because the physical and mental effects of Tasers would violate the Convention’s prohibition against torture. The committee noted that “use of these weapons provokes extreme pain” and may be fatal, “as reliable studies and recent facts occurring in practice have revealed.”

The X-26 Taser fires two sharp electrodes into a person’s body. The electrodes, which are connected by wires to the weapon, deliver a 50,000 volt shock. This causes temporary muscle paralysis; however, according to the manufacturer and the government organizations it supplies, the shock is below the threshold for causing cardiac defibrillation and thus is presumably safe.

That picture is not so rosy according to Amnesty International, which asserts that Tasers have been implicated in 280 deaths in the United States and 18 in Canada, some of which occurred hours after people were shocked. The weapon’s manufacturer, Taser International, has asserted that all such deaths were attributable to “other factors and not to low-intensity Taser electric discharges.” The company blames many Taser-related deaths on “excited delirium,” a condition that has no formal medical recognition but is basically prisoners dying in police, jail or prison custody.

Dr. Rene Blais is providing medical-technical advice to the Quebec Minister of Public Safety as it formulates policies for the use of Tasers. Dr. Blais agrees with the manufacturer. “If an electric shock were supposed to put a person’s life in danger and provoke cardiac arrest, that would happen immediately, in the seconds following the intervention,” he said. This simply regurgitates the manufacturer’s claims.

Montreal School of Criminology professor Jean-Paul Brodeur rejects physicians who make such conclusions as “quack doctors.” He noted that professor Pierre Savard of the Polytechnical School’s Institute for Biomedical Innovation had conducted a study on healthy men that proved a Taser shock could cause an increase in heart rate which, in minutes, could lead to ventricular fibrillation, a known cause of cardiac arrest and sudden death. Professor Savard emphasized that real-life encounters with police involve people of all ages, some of whom have bad hearts or other complicating health problems which could make Taser shocks even more dangerous.

Prof. Brodeur also rejects as fanciful claims by police associations that 4,000 lives have been saved by Tasers. “The number of lives presumably saved often greatly exceeds the number of times – not very frequently – that police actually used their firearms in a year. They’re saving lives in fictitious situations that are completely made up,” he said.

In actuality, what seems to happen is that Tasers are often deployed in situations where police officers would not consider using a firearm anyway. They are used to avoid more appropriate restraining methods which would require the use of physical force on a suspect. If something goes wrong, police officers often lie about the circumstances surrounding their Taser deployment. This being the case, arming police with Tasers may be a shockingly bad idea.

According to Brodeur, a better idea would be to train police in how to more appropriately react in crisis situations. “What needs revision are the protocols for the use of force,” he said. PLN has reported extensively on the use of Tasers, particularly in jail and prison environments. [See: PLN, Oct. 2006, p.1].

On June 6, 2008, Taser suffered its first loss in court, when the company was found partly liable in a lawsuit filed following the death of a California man who was Tasered six times by police officers. The federal jury awarded damages of more than $6.2 million, with Taser being responsible for almost $1 million of that amount. See: Heston, v. City of Salinas, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:05-cv-3658. [See pg. 25, this issue of PLN.]

Sources: Le Monde, Le Devoir, Phoenix Business Journal,

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