Less lethal weapon?

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In September the Home Office gave permission for a year long trial of taser electric shock weapons to non firearm trained police officers.

Tasers are to be employed in situations where, according to a ministerial statement, "they would need to use force to protect the public, themselves and/or the subject(s) of their actions".

Tasers have become increasingly common across the world. Amnesty International has attributed 245 deaths to the weapon over the last five years. Taser International, the monopoly producing the guns, refuses to admit any fatalities. The mix of a high powered PR machine, and an overactive team of lawyers, sees to that - strangely, the website for Taser UK claims that while there have been no deaths, tasers are only a "less lethal" alternative to firearms.

Ryan Wilson, of Colorado, was chased for half a mile through a field of cannabis by a police officer. He was then shot once with a 50,000 volt X-26 taser and collapsed in convulsions. Despite CPR from the officer, he died soon after. Wilson was fit and healthy, without traces of alcohol or drugs in his body.

The coroner found that the death was due to a combination of physical exertion, an unusually small heart artery, and the taser shock. The officer was cleared following an internal investigation.

One of the most worrying aspects of tasers is their misuse. Sold as a safer alternative to guns, they are often used, as above, in cases where no danger is present.

In mid-September a University of Florida student was restrained and "tased" for asking once presidential hopeful John Kerry too many questions at a university forum before refusing to give up the microphone. The video was captured on YouTube. Police in other colleges have tased students for reasons such as failing to show ID in their libraries.

In several cases authorities have paid out to victims who were tased after failing to respond to orders, in one case because the man in question was in diabetic shock.

Taser International has an aggressive sales technique involving offering shares to police, and taking many of them on to work at the company. In 2002 Taser took on Bernard Kerik as company director. Kerik was New York police commissioner on 9/11, gaining him a degree of popularity. The company made just under $7 million profits in 2001, which rose to $68 million by 2004 under Kerik's directorship. In the US tasers are legally available on the open market, costing as little as £100.

Unsurprisingly, tasers have also become a regular fixture on peaceful protests in the US, and allegations persist of prisoners in US jails suffering repeated tasing for disorderly conduct.

If you consider the trigger happy police officers who shot Jean Charles de Menezes dead for looking like a terrorist at Stockwell tube station in 2005, or numerous other examples of unarmed suspects being killed, you can't help but wonder whether this might encourage officers to shock first, ask questions later, and as in the de Menezes example, get away with it.