Originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2011
Their formal title is ‘conducted-energy devices’, but to the public they’re stun-guns or tasers – named after Taser International of Arizona, the largest manufacturer of the weapon. 11,000 law enforcement agencies in the US use them and there is good evidence for the claim that they reduce the need for police officers to use lethal force. But there is an intensifying debate in the States as to whether tasers are really as safe as claimed. Several dozen individuals (Amnesty International claim as many as 300) have died in the US after being ‘tasered’. But have they died because they were tasered? More than 70 legal actions have now been brought by bereaved families against both police forces and Taser International. But in the majority of cases courts have decided that the cause of death was the victim’s pre-existing medical condition – either heart disease, or, most commonly, ‘excited delirium’ (ED). ED is a somewhat vague ‘syndrome’ linked to extreme cocaine addiction and it’s not recognised by the American Medical Association. The real controversy is whether ED is being used, as some claim, as a cover-up. Taser International aggressively protects its reputation, and has recently threatened legal action against any (publicly employed) Medical Examiner who rules that their product contributed to a death. The company also funds conferences and training around the US to explain ED to doctors, lawyers and police officers. But in two cases over the past year California courts have ruled against Taser. We report on both, and we also explore the research that is being done on ED and on what being stunned actually does to the human body. Mark Whitaker reports from California and Arizona.
N.B. Some music & extracts have been edited from the original broadcast version due to copyright restrictions