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Point/Counterpoint: Is TASER use worth a human life?

John Stewart

The Gwinnett Branch of the NAACP was pleased to host a TASER gun community forum April 2 to increase the level of communication regarding the use of TASER guns by law enforcement personnel.

The supporters of TASER gun use will have the public believe TASER guns are safe and only used as a last resort before more lethal force is required. However, no one can deny the fact that two young men, Ray Austin, 25, and Freddie Jerome Williams, 31, died after being shot with TASER guns while in the custody of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department.

To my knowledge, they had not been convicted of a crime. And, the last time I checked, we are still a free nation governed by a constitution which presumes all citizens are innocent until proven guilty as judged by a jury of their peers.

As the citizenry of Gwinnett County, we should hold our government officials to a higher standard of accountability when people die in police custody. It has been a year since the death of Williams and we still do not know the details of his death. I am told there is a videotape that shows how the TASER was used to subdue Williams. A year later and the tape has not been released. Why? A year later and the investigation has not been concluded. Why? A concerned citizenry should want to know.

According to Amnesty International, there have been 104 documented TASER-related deaths in the United States and Canada. I believe it is reasonable for an informed citizenry to ask its government officials to suspend TASER gun use until:

n Independent research on the safety of TASER guns is completed.

n Policies, practices and accountabilities are in place to ensure TASER guns are not used unless lethal force is required.

n Responsible measures are taken to insure the citizens of Gwinnett will not be responsible for costs associated with litigation of wrongful death law suits.

The people who support the continued use of TASER guns continue to argue it's the best option in lieu of lethal force. But there appears to be a trend across the country where the Thomas A. Swift's Electrical Rifle (TASER) is being used as a routine compliance weapon. Again, a reasonable citizenry should question the safety of the TASER gun.

An article in the March 18 USA TODAY entitled "Federal bureaus reject stun guns" reports that officials had "enough question marks about the safety of this device" that "The Department of Homeland Security's two largest law enforcement divisions have rejected the use of stun guns for about 20,000 agents." Following the death of Williams in Gwinnett, the sheriff of neighboring Forsyth County and the city of Macon suspended the use of TASER guns.

Upon meeting the grieving widow of Williams, I contacted Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway to discuss the use of TASERs by his personnel. I commend Sheriff Conway for inviting me to lunch with him and Thomas Brown, sheriff of DeKalb County, to discuss the issue. Sheriffs Conway and Brown stated their support of TASERs and their belief that they saved lives. I listened intently to their thoughts and rationale.

But I still ask, "What is the value of one human life?"

The NAACP Gwinnett Branch has drafted a resolution calling for a suspension of TASER use by Gwinnett County law enforcement personnel until conclusive research on the TASERs by independent researchers not associated with the manufacturer of the TASER gun is completed. The resolution further states that should the suspension of TASER guns not take immediate effect, only trained supervisors administer the TASER. The general membership of the NAACP Gwinnett Branch will vote on the TASER resolution at the next general membership meeting at 3:45 p.m. April 24 at the Gwinnett Justice & Administration Center.

The Rev. John Stewart Jr. is president of the NAACP Gwinnett County Branch.