Monday, March 24, 2008

Autism and Tasers

Tasers can kill.

They do not always kill but they can kill. And they are painful. They are not used solely to protect police officers from serious threats. They are often used simply because a person is "non-compliant" with police officer commands. Lax standards for use of tasers has resulted in over use and placing of people at risk of serious pain and even death. Of particular concern for me, as the father of a 12 year old boy with Autism Disorder with profound developmental delays, is that tasers, in New Brunswick, as well as elsewhere, are used against persons with mental disorders including autism disorder.

Some people with autism disorders, including my son, have limited understanding of language. They can also become overwhelmed by overstimulation and excitement. All the ingredients necessary for a tasering if an autistic person is suffering from a meltdown in the presence of a police officer.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture in commenting on its periodic report of Portugal stated that Taser use constitutes a form of torture:


Following its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Portugal ... The Committee was worried that the use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use.

(Bold highlighting added - HLD)

Young people with autism disorders have been tasered to calm them down. In November 2005 in Florida a 15 year old Autistic youth was tasered after he was already down on the ground, handcuffed, with his legs tied, with four police officers on his back. The boy , although 15 functions at the level of a 6 year old. He was 5' 8", and 225 pounds but at the point the boy was tasered it is difficult to see how he could have been an actual threat to the four attending police officers.

In a November 2007 incident in California a 15 year old Autistic youth was Tasered after being approached by police and running across a roadway causing two cars to swerve. He was then tasered and handcuffed for his safety. The boy's mother contends the boy would have complied with the police instructions if he had not felt threatened.

Autistic youths here in New Brunswick have also been subjected to Taser force by police. In Connecting the Dots New Brunswick Ombudsman and Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard examined the criminalization of youth with mental disabilities in New Brunswick. One of the examples he used was that of Nichlas ( a pseudonym) a youth with Aspergers:

It was very clear from an early age that Nicholas had difficulty with over-stimulation. He became quickly aggressive if too much was going on around him. He’s been known to react strongly to people talking to him and to thinking they were shouting when, in fact,they were not. He was also hypersensitive to tags on his clothes. He had a fixation about singing “O Canada” at any time of the day or night. He would memorize the phone book and license plate numbers, particularly of police cars and fire engines. He obsessed over details about machines and inventions and over certain words, like “Rubbermaid.” He was very bright in reading and writing. Specialists recommended a specific approach with Nicholas: having a predictable routine, having a quiet place to go to wind down when he felt too much stimulation (“graceful exits”), breaking up his day so he could get less stimulation and more control, and reviewing rules and expectations before moving on to a new activity, because he cannot deal well with sudden changes.

Nicholas ultimately ended up in a an FCS (Family and Community Services) group home. There he ended up being tasered, on two occasions, by police:

A series of placements in FCS group homes, at home with his parents, at the Child and
Adolescent Psychiatric Unit of the Moncton Hospital, and at NBYC (even frequent
moves within NBYC) began for Nicholas. Twice the police “tasered” him. (Police use a
taser gun to immobilize an individual. The gun releases two barbed fish hooks that shoot
thousands of volts into the body.)

Mr. Richard's report is careful to point out the challenges faced by staff in the group home. He also highlights the lack of adequate placements and help for autistic youths like Nicholas. As a result of his behavior and arrests Nicholas ended up in jail on different occasions where he was repeatedly sexually abused by a guard who later pled guilty and was sentence for those abuses.

In the United States recently there have been two more incidents of deaths of persons shortly after they were Tasered. On March 20, 2008, a 17 year old Charlotte, North Carolina youth died after being Tasered by police at the grocery store where he worked. In Florida on March 21, 2008, a 41-year-old man, who wandered through traffic and violently resisted arrest, died after officers stunned him with a Taser.

Police officers perform vitally necessary services in society and they often face dangerous conditions in performing those services. But that in no way justifies distortion by anyone, including police, about the dangers of Taser use. The false belief that Tasers are harmless or cannot kill has resulted in overuse of Tasers. They are NOT used just to protect police officers or the public. University students being Tasered in a library, a man being Tasered for refusing to sign a speeding ticket,and a visitor to Canada being Tasered and dying shortly thereafter.

Autistic people are sometimes challenged in understanding language and even where they do can sometimes become over reactive to excitement and stimulation. They are inherently vulnerable to being Tasered for "non-compliance". In New Brunswick "Nicholas", a youth with Aspergers, was Tasered on two occasions.

I do not want to see my profoundly autistic son, now 12 and growing, shot with a Taser at any point. I can fully understand any person with a family member shot with a Taser pursuing every legal recourse against the officers in question and public decision makers who could permit this to occur, elsewhere or here in New Brunswick; including pursuing complaints to the United Nations which has already indicated that Taser use is a form of torture.

1 comment:

Ettina said...

That's the big reason I'm scared of police. Not tasers specifically, but knowing that if I have a meltdown around them, they could decide to use potentially dangerous or even deadly force to subdue me. Especially since when I'm having a meltdown, force tends to make it worse.