Why Do the Police Still Use Tasers on Unarmed Teenagers?

Last Tuesday, Miami Beach police caught Israel Hernandez-Llach, an 18-year-old graffiti artist, tagging a shuttered McDonald's. The officers chased Hernandez-Llach through streets and buildings, and eventually fired a Taser at him. The teen died an hour later at a nearby hospital. Sadly, Hernandez-Llach is only the latest victim of police tasing in the United States.

Although the Taser is classified as a nonlethal weapon, Amnesty International found that between 2001 and 2012, more than 500 people died due to Taser use; 90% of the victims were unarmed. While the use of Tasers may be justified in some cases, Hernandez-Llach posed no threat to the police, and could have been apprehended without the use of additional force. Stricter regulations on police Taser use are needed to prevent further tragic deaths.

The slogan for Taser International, one of the largest manufacturers of electroshock guns, is "protect life." A counter on their website boasts that more than 100,000 lives were "saved" due to the use of their device. While a Taser may prevent the loss of life when it is used as an alternative to a firearm, there are many cases in which the unnecessary firing of a Taser has resulted in death or serious injury. Tasers are meant to immobilize individuals by subjecting them to a pulsating electric current of 5,000 volts. Though studies suggest that this type of current is usually not deadly in and of itself, it can lead to fatalities by affecting the heart and the respiratory system. People with medical conditions, and those who are intoxicated or who have been weakened by a struggle are more likely to suffer injuries.

Police often use Tasers unnecessarily, when individuals could be subdued and arrested without the use of any weapon. In 2007, a video showing the tasing of Andrew Meyer at the University of Florida in Gainesville went viral, and Meyer's plea, "don't tase me bro," became a meme. The 21-year-old Meyer had pursued a somewhat aggressive line of questioning in a forum with former Sen. John Kerry, when two police officers pulled him away from the microphone. The footage shows Meyer lying on the floor, and held down by at least five officers, when he was tased. Incidents cited in Amnesty's press release represent even more egregious abuses of electroshock gun use. Allen Kephart, a 43-year-old California man, died after he was he was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation and tased 16 times. A man with disabilities and hearing problems was tased by a police officer after falling off his bike in North Carolina. Like Hernandez-Llach, they were unlikely to pose any threat to the officers, and could have been arrested without being tased.

While many police departments cite rising violence and "lack of respect for authority" in justifying their growing reliance on Tasers, in at least in one case, a victim's family was able to effect changes to Taser policy through the legal system. In 2012, the city of Cincinnati changed their guidelines for Taser use after Everette Howard's family sued the University of Cincinnati police. The 18-year-old Howard had been tased by police officers on the University of Cincinnati campus, and died shortly thereafter. The updated policy recognizes the dangers posed by the electroshock gun, and directs officers to aim its electrodes at an individual's back, rather than at their chest or throat. The policy also emphasizes that Tasers should only be used on individuals who are, "actively resisting arrest."

The Cincinnati guidelines mark a step forward. Perhaps similar policies will be adopted in Florida — the state with the second-highest number of Taser-related deaths. A more comprehensive study of Taser use by police officers is needed, as is a study of the use of excessive force by police in general. Apparently, the FBI does not collect systematic data on the fatal shooting of suspects before an arrest is made. In the case of Tasers, systematic reporting will likely call into question the categorization of Tasers as "nonlethal weapons," lead to stricter regulations, and raise questions of racial profiling.