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Tasers for the German police: how dangerous are stun guns?

"It's been five terrible seconds," is how a Berlin policeman describes the moment when he was hit by a stun gun. Two small arrow electrodes dig into the victim's skin or clothing, then a current of 50,000 volts flows. "It hurts like a cramp," remembers the chief inspector, who allowed himself to be shot at for practice purposes. As a result of the electric shock, those affected lose control of their muscles and fall to the ground.

Thomas Schilken, police trainer from Rhineland-Palatinate, never forgets this experience. He also had a power surge with the taser: "On a pain scale from one to ten, that's a nine, maybe even a ten," he told Deutsche Welle. After a few seconds the pain subsides and the victim can get up again. Nevertheless, he does not want to experience that again, emphasizes the policeman. "I was served."

Tasers for the patrol police

The two police officers' self-experiments have a reason: In Germany, more and more patrolmen are being equipped with stun guns. They wear the yellow and black devices on their belts when they patrol the streets or when they are called to a mission. The stun guns, which cost around 1400 euros each, are also called "tasers" after the American inventor and manufacturer. The company, which is the undisputed world market leader, has since been renamed "Axon". Axon has an office in Frankfurt am Main and is aggressively promoting the purchase of tasers to the German police: They could save lives, since a short electric shock is much more harmless than a shot with a gun or a blow with a baton.

This has convinced some state interior ministers: Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate were the first federal states to introduce stun guns to the patrol police, and test phases are underway in Bremen and the capital Berlin. According to the proponents, the taser closes a gap: If the pepper spray does not help, but the use of a firearm is too risky, then the stun gun can be pulled. Especially with people who are "in a state of emergency" due to alcohol, drugs or psychological problems, the spokesman for the Rhineland-Palatinate interior ministry told DW, the taser could be the method of choice.

"De-escalating effect"

A policeman told Deutsche Welle that simply showing the taser is often enough to calm the situation down. "A lot of people have seen YouTube videos of Taser operations and prefer not to experience it themselves." For the police officers, it is also about self-protection: If they are threatened, they can use the taser to gain respect or to ward off the attacker. Rescue workers therefore praise the "de-escalating effect" of the taser. In fact, practical experience shows that German patrolmen threaten the shot from the stun gun far more often than use it.

Collapsed after using the Taser

But the use of tasers is not as safe as some proponents claim. This is shown by a dramatic case that took place in the small town of Pirmasens in southwest Germany in mid-January: A mentally ill man was supposed to be brought from his apartment to the hospital. Because he resisted it with his hands and feet, a policeman shocked him with a taser. The 56-year-old did not recover from this: he collapsed in the police car and died shortly afterwards in the hospital's emergency room.

Special forces of the Frankfurt police train the use of the taser - for exercise purposes, however, without electricity

Unresolved questions about four deaths

The prosecution is still investigating whether there is a connection between the use of tasers and the man's sudden death. The investigations are "complex and extremely multi-layered", informed the responsible public prosecutor of Deutsche Welle. The tragic case in Pirmasens is not the only one that raises questions: In May a man died in the Frankfurt area after being "tasered" by a police officer. Previously, he had aggressively resisted taking urgently needed medication.

There are also two other deaths in which taser shots by special police forces could have played a role, one in Bavaria and one in Hesse. The taser has long been part of the basic equipment of the police special forces. Opposition politicians like the Hessian Left MP Hermann Schaus are now calling for the use of these "dangerous weapons" to be abandoned until "it has been clarified beyond any doubt whether the deaths are due to Taser operations".

"Death by falls and fire"

The manufacturer also admits that the use of the Taser is not free of risks. Since the invention of the device a quarter of a century ago, there have been "26 deaths from falls and fire," said Axon to Deutsche Welle in a written statement. By this, the company means cases in which a fall after the electric shock was fatal or the victim's clothing was ignited by the taser bombardment. According to Axon's reading, not a single death can be traced back to the effects of the electric shock on the victim's cardiovascular system.

The figures compiled by the Reuters news agency paint a completely different picture: According to them, more than 1,000 people have died in the United States after being shot at by the police over the past 20 years. In at least 153 cases, the taser was the sole cause of death or demonstrably contributed to the death, as shown by autopsy reports and trial files.

In many cases, however, the cause of death could not be clearly established. According to Reuters research, this is also due to the fact that the manufacturer in the USA is specifically influencing medical reports. Axon maintains relationships with those experts "who decide whether a taser shock is to blame for a fatal accident or not," the news agency found.

Reuters research on fatalities after Taser operations in the USA

May be life-threatening

So how dangerous is a sudden, high surge of electricity to health, especially the heart? That depends heavily on the physical condition of the person affected, says cardiologist Thomas Deneke, chief physician at a heart clinic in Bavaria. "In a healthy person there shouldn't be any relevant problems." But if someone is already suffering from a heart condition or is taking certain medications or drugs, caution is advised: then a taser shot and the associated stress could "also be life-threatening". The heart specialist emphasized in an interview with DW that it was just not exactly clear which drugs and which drugs they were.

This is exactly where the problem lies: The taser is considered a tried and tested means of action against people who are very aggressive or in a psychological state of emergency, who defend themselves against being admitted to a hospital or who want to kill themselves. However, these people have often taken medication or drugs, and they are also under great stress. All of this increases the risk that the electric shock can at least contribute to a heart attack.

Axon has sold around 144,000 Tasers worldwide to date. Germany is also potentially a big market.

Consideration for risk groups

In their taser training, which usually lasts two to three days, the police officers are expressly sensitized to certain risk groups. Police trainer Thomas Schilken told DW that they were instructed not to use the taser "with recognizable heart disease, pregnant women or children under the age of 14". But he objects: "I am a police officer, not a doctor". Of course, he does not know the medical history of a target person.

Basically, the trainer emphasizes, it is about using the taser in a level-headed manner. In Germany, conditions like those in the Netherlands are not wanted: There was already such excessive use of stun guns in the test phase in 2017 that the "UN Committee Against Torture" warned the country.

Dutch police officers had often used the taser in what is known as the "contact mode", in which it is held directly against the body. Although this does not cause paralysis, it does cause severe pain. The human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) complains that even people in handcuffs and prison cells have been "tasered", which is prohibited by law. "Police violence has increased after the introduction of the taser," AI spokesman Emile Affolter told DW. Many police officers simply "experimented" with the device. It was only after the training was expanded and improved that the number of tasers dropped significantly.

"Don't sweep anything under the carpet"

In Germany, the first numbers indicate a cautious use of the taser. The Berlin police used the taser exactly three times between February 2017 and April 2019: twice to prevent suicides, once for domestic violence.

Nevertheless, the four deaths after taser shelling highlight the problems that the new weapon brings with it. The Nuremberg public prosecutor's office commissioned no fewer than four reports on the death in Bavaria. One does not want to expose oneself to the accusation, explained a spokeswoman for the DW, "that something is swept under the carpet".

The elaborate investigations also show how difficult it is to medically prove or disprove the connection between a taser attack and a death. The heart specialist Thomas Deneke puts it this way: What was ultimately the cause of a heart attack, "it's not the heart of the matter".