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​Illustration by Michael Waraksa​​​​​​​​​​​

Tasers and the United Nations

Taser use is once again in the news. Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture for the United Nations (U.N.) Commission on Human Rights, called for U.S. officials to investigate Taser use on inmates in jails in Ohio, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

Melzer made his remarks after reviewing footage of 22 incidents in jails in Franklin County, Ohio; Cheatham County, Tennessee; Franklin County, Arkansas; and McCurtain County, Oklahoma. The footage was obtained and published by Reuters.

In an interview with Reuters, Melzer said the incidents reflected gratuitous infliction of severe pain and suffering which violated the United Nations' prohibition on cruel and inhuman punishment. In some cases Taser use amounted to torture.

In its video report and article published in December, Reuters identified 104 cases of prisoners who died after being shocked with Tasers. Nearly 80 percent of those 104 inmates had not been convicted of a crime. Reuters was able to gather significant detail on 70 of the 104 cases; in more than two-thirds of the 70, the inmate was already immobilized—pinned to the ground or held by officers—when shocked. About one-third were cuffed or in other restraints.

Of those 104 cases, Reuters was able to obtain cause-of-death information on 84 cases. The Taser was identified as a contributing factor of death in more than 21 of those 84 cases.

Jens Modvig, chairman of the U.N. Committee against Torture, also said the incidents published by Reuters represented blatant abuse that may violate laws. The United States, as a signatory to the U.N. Convention against Torture, is obligated to investigate the cases, Modvig argued. 

The Reuters report and the statement by U.N. officials marks the latest chapter in the ongoing debate on Taser use.

Various studies have shown that Tasers may pose some health risks, depending on how they are used, and on whom.

But other studies show they can be used as an effective enforcement tool in some cases, that may ultimately reduce the number of violent assaults and sometimes even save lives. The U.N.'s Melzer, while condemning the incidents published by Reuters, also said that in general Tasers can be a justifiable tool for prison guards as an alternative to a gun, to incapacitate a person who poses a threat.

And this year may see the San Francisco Police Department adopt the use of Tasers. It is one of the last major U.S. forces to do so. In November 2017, the San Francisco Police Commission voted 4–3 to allow the city's police department to begin equipping its officers with Tasers in December 2018. The vote was taken near the end of a long meeting that was interrupted by a protest that led to a lockdown of City Hall. The issue had been debated and rejected in the city for years.