The death of 21-year-old Brazilian student Roberto Laudisio Curti in a central Sydney street, after six police tasered him at least three times, has highlighted the rising use of Tasers by police and security in Australia and worldwide.
The deadly confrontation with Curti on March 18 has now been revealed as a case of “mistaken identity” over the theft of a packet of biscuits. Curti was also capsicum sprayed, and was running from police when he was tasered multiple times in the back.
Curti is at least the fifth Taser-related death in Australia. Two of the previous four deaths have been Aboriginal people.
But the United States is way ahead. Amnesty International has documented more than 500 deaths that took place after police Taser use there*.
Other studies confirm the brutal nature of Taser policing. An Amnesty report found 90% of Taser death victims were unarmed.
A five-year study in Victoria found 85% of Taser victims suffered a mental illness. A Western Australia commission revealed they were used disproportionately against Aboriginal people.
Despite this horrific picture, Taser use is expanding.
Tasers are now used as part of policing in every Australian state. Taser use in NSW rose 1000% between 2008 and 2010.
Curti’s violent death has not stopped NSW Police from being eager to look at a new, extra-powerful “double-shot Taser”, which allows two charges to be shot without reloading.
Hiding Taser deaths
True Taser death figures may be much higher than reports show.
Police and the corporate power behind Tasers have been active in keeping reported Taser deaths as low as possible.
Tasers can cause heart attacks and death fast, and can increase the risk of death for drug users or those with medical conditions.
But police generally record such deaths as due to only a medical condition or drug use, not Taser use.
In May 2002, in one of the first Taser uses in NSW, a mentally ill man was tasered after threatening police with a frying pan. Two weeks later the man, who had heart disease, died of a heart attack.
The Ombudsman said those with heart problems are at increased risk from Tasers.
But it is not just police who strive to minimise deaths being attributed to Tasers.
Taser International (TI) is a multinational company that sells about US$100 million of Tasers a year.
TI’s “market” depends on growing use of Tasers by police and other security firms. In the US, Tasers are now used by security in colleges and even schools. In Miami in 2004 police tasered a six-year-old boy at his school and a 12-year-old girl who ran from an officer.
In both cases, police insisted it was the “only option”.
TI has waged a legal war, including lawsuits and lobbying, to try to prevent medical examiners from ruling that Tasers contributed to the causes of death.
In 2008, under pressure from the company, a US judge ordered that the word “Taser” be removed from the autopsies of three men, who all died after being shocked with the stun gun.
The president of the US National Association of Medical Examiners described TI’s actions as “dangerously close to intimidation”.
Shortly after the ruling, a healthy 17-year-old boy died after police tasered him in Virginia. The medical examiner ruled a cardiac death with no direct cause, yet explicitly ruled out all possible cardiac causes other than the tasering. The case showed how TI’s aggressive litigation could dissuade examiners from citing Tasers as contributing to fatalities.
A US cardiologist whose studies found that a healthy individual could die from a Taser discharge, and risk of death increases with each tasering, or with drugs or adrenaline in the blood, was asked by TI to reconsider his media statements, and was offered funding. He refused.
Taser promoters dismiss Taser-related deaths by attributing them to a condition called “excited delirium”.
The term cannot be found in any medical dictionary and is not recognised by the American Medical Association. Civil liberties and medical groups say it is a term used to cover up deaths involving police brutality.
Almost all instances of death by “excited delirium” have occurred in police custody, often after Taser use.
Despite TI’s fervent guarantees about the “safety” of its product, even under controlled conditions Tasers have caused serious injuries.
In a two-week period in 2005, police officers in five US states filed lawsuits against TI claiming they suffered serious injuries after being shocked with the device during training classes. Claims included heart damage, strokes, multiple spinal fractures, hearing and vision loss and neurological damage.
That year, a memorandum from the US Army discouraged shocking soldiers with Tasers in training, despite TI’s recommendations. The US army warned that “seizures can be induced by the electric current” and said not to use the weapons “given the potential risks”.
In 2009, to try to sidestep lawsuits, TI issued a warning that Tasers should be used “avoiding chest shots” to “avoid controversy” about effects on the human heart.
Lives before profits
TI’s admission that Tasers should not be used on a person’s chest, and the US Army's recognition of the risks, should send a clear message that these deadly weapons should be immediately withdrawn from police use.
Tasers have even been used against innocent people with health conditions. In July 2005, a man who was suffering a diabetic fit and slipped into a coma was shot twice with a Taser by British police who feared he was a threat as he lay slumped clutching his backpack.
The increased reliance on Tasers means police ignore non weapon-based strategies for diffusing conflict, which are essential when dealing with people suffering mental illness or affected by drugs.
Instead, police are becoming increasingly militarised, with an array of weapons such as pistols, batons, capsicum spray and Tasers.
The costs of this police militarisation, and especially the move to Tasers, can be counted in hundreds of lives, such as young Roberto Curti.
Yet vested interests are concealing the extent of this true cost — allowing police to increase their powers as TI grows its profits.
The effort to protect police power and “market share” is another example of the illogical system that values profits over human lives.
[Paul Benedek tweets at @GreenleftPaul.]
[*Correction, April 4: A sentence in this article originally said "Amnesty International has documented more than 500 deaths caused by police Taser use there", whereas the report documented "the deaths of 500 people following police use of Tasers".]