Those Who Can’t Shoot, Tase
A new law allowing the use of tasers by Austrian police has sparked controversy
Harald Vilimsky, Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) leader, writhed on the ground, screaming and wincing in pain, as two police officers towered over him.
"The whole body is in a state of ‘hypertension’. You can’t move. You’re no longer in control of yourself. You are in fact paralysed for five seconds," he reported after experiencing 50,000 volts pass through his body. Voluntarily.
In a trademark FPÖ PR-coup, Vilimsky agreed to test a taser, a gun-shaped electroshock weapon, on his own body. "If a member of the Austrian Parliament can take the electroshocks," he argued, "an aggressive prisoner certainly can too."
This was in December 2008, two years after the Austrian police started testing the devices. After a probation phase of six years, tasers are now an official service weapon of the Austrian police. Since 1 July, four types of officers – from WEGA, Cobra, Task Force for Prevention of Street Crime, and specially trained officers in pre-deportation detention centres – are allowed to carry and use the guns in standard operations. The Ministry of the Interior hopes their implementation will "close the gap between pepper spray and guns."
The implementation has been met with substantial and justified criticism from organisations such as Amnesty International, sprouting into ethical debate about the dangers involved.
Legally, tasers fall under the definition of "non-lethal weapons" since, in most cases, tasers don’t kill people. What they do do is, euphemistically speaking, "immobilise" aggressive suspects. Two barbed, dart-like electrodes send 50,000-volt pulses, causing involuntary muscle contractions, making it impossible to control one’s movements. These shocks last for five seconds and give the police time to hold down and handcuff the suspect. Shocks can be repeated as often as needed. All it takes is the push of a button. Although tasers may be a better alternative to traditional firearms, which routinely injure and kill, the critiques are numerous.
Ironically, the heart of the controversy lies in the fact that they are not lethal. Carrying a weapon that causes excruciating pain, but knowing that it will not kill the target can, critics say, lead to all-too-casual and arguably unnecessary use of the device.
At the beginning of the testing phase, Amnesty International Austria argued that rushed implementation would open the door to abuse. The recent, devastating cases of torture by the Austrian police in pre-deportation detention centres (See "Your Friend and Helper?", TVR, February 2012) make the fear legitimate, and make the fact that tasers can now be used in those centres, even more disturbing.
A quick perusal of YouTube brings up dozens of videos of police abusing their authority, from countries where tasers are legal. In one, a policeman pulls a car over for speeding: The driver gets out and argues with the officer who then uses his taser on the young man, as his pregnant wife looks on in horror from the passenger seat.
There may be some situations in which a taser is the only way to deal with a suspect without getting hurt; but perhaps it’s just the easy way. It’s quick and efficient. In the case of Florian P., the 14-year-old who was shot dead by police in Krems during a supermarket robbery, a taser could perhaps have prevented the boy’s death.
But then again, tasers aren’t always non-lethal. In February, Amnesty International counted the 500th taser fatality in the U.S. since the device was implemented in 2001. In Alabama, an intoxicated and unarmed man died after being tasered twice by police officers.
In Austria there have been 133 cases of taser usage during the last six years of testing, including six on animals. One case led to major injury.
"Most injuries do not result from the actual electroshock but from the falls that follow," said Konrad Kogler of the Ministry of the Interior in a widely-quoted statement – falls that are an immediate and an unavoidable consequence of the involuntary muscle contractions caused by the shocks.
The Austrian police have met the criticism with very strict regulations. Every taser use must be documented, to prevent tasers from becoming – as Heinz Patzelt, head of Amnesty International Austria put it – an "everyday disciplinary device".
Johanna Sebauer has a BA in Political Science from the University of Vienna and is now completing a Journalism MA in Denmark.