The Estonian Ministry of the Interior has put forward further proposals to amend the Weapons Act, which would broaden the range of situations in which Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) officers could use electric shock 'taser' weapons.
"In coordination with the Ministry of Justice, we are proposing the inclusion of amendments to the bill concerning the use of tasers," said Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) in a signed document sent to the Riigikogu's Legal Affairs Committee. A draft amendment to the Weapons Act is currently pending before the committee, along with other related acts.
Up to now, the Polica and Border Guard Board (PPA) and other law enforcement agencies in Estonia have been able to use tasers to counter a significant or heightened threat or prevent breaches of the law. Once approved by the Riigikogu, the amendments will also allow police to use electric shock weapons in the process of detaining suspects, if deemed necessary as a means of rendering them unable to resist arrest or to prevent an escape.
However, the proposal underlines, that the use of tasers will remain strictly controlled by law and may only be used in certain situations.
This includes for instance, when a person has been deprived of their liberty as the result of a court decision. It may also extend to instances involving those who are subject to involuntary psychiatric care under the Mental Health Act or detention, or held in a deportation center under the Obligation to Leave and Prohibition on Entry Act.
In such cases, law enforcement officers would be able to use tasers where a person is attempting to escape or resist detention.
The proposed amendment also removes the requirement from the current regulations, which states that electroshock weapons may only be used for countering a serious threat if another measure of direct coercion, with the exception of using a firearm, is not possible.
Thus, while according to the Ministry of the Interior, the 2014 amendment to the Law Enforcement Act essentially increased restrictions on the use of tasers by only allowing them in cases of heightened threat, this approach has now been abandoned.
Ministry: Tasers no more dangerous than other weapons
The previous version of the law's explanatory memorandum said, that electric shock weapons were potentially dangerous to a person's health. However, the interior ministry said, that this position has now changed.
"Experience shows that electric shock weapons have been used judiciously, with few or no negative consequences, and that the right to use (them) is granted in situations, where the use of an electric shock weapon may be more effective or pose less of a health risk than a service weapon or some other form of equipment," said the Ministry of the Interior in its statement.
"Police officers will certainly not use electric shock weapons lightly, but will assess the situation and the need for the weapon on a case-by-case basis," the ministry said.
The ministry also cited research conducted in other countries, showing that the use of electric shock weapons can cause less harm than other alternatives, such as telescopic batons. A study published in the United States in 2009 for instance, found that, of the 1,201 people on whom an electric shock weapons were used, only 0.25 percent sustained injuries.
According to another large study conducted in the U.S., the use of physical force by police officers to detain suspects increased the likelihood of injuries occurring for all parties involved. Meanwhile, the use of tear gas by law enforcement reduced the chances of suspects becoming injured by 65 percent. The reduction was even higher when electric shock weapons were used, at 70 percent.
"An electric shock weapon can be used from a much greater distance and, if necessary, continue to deliver electric shocks if a person does not comply with (an officer's) orders. The consequences resulting from the use of physical force are generally very difficult to predict," the ministry said.
The ministry also pointed out, that the physical pain caused to a suspect by a taser, lasts a much shorter time than that resulting from the use of a telescopic baton, teargas or if they are bitten by a service dog.
Taser-related deaths only in extremely unfortunate circumstances
According to the ministry, more serious injuries and deaths following taser use may occur, though only in extremely unfortunate circumstances due to falls, drug use or underlying heart conditions.
Because the electric charge from a taser disrupts a person's balance and co-ordination or immobilizes them, this may result in secondary injuries such as lacerations or concussions, with falls the biggest risk. In the worst case, scenario, a fall may even result in death, if a person hits their head on a hard surface or object as a result.
However, the ministry points out, that research shows the charge from electric shock weapons are not lethal in and of themselves. To reduce the risks of such injuries occurring, officers aim the tasers at the lower body, waist or back, avoiding the chest, head and groin area where possible.
The Ministry of the Interior stressed that in all other countries where tasers are in use, they are classified at the same level as tear gas and can be used by police officers before resorting to physical force.
"The current approach in Estonia, where electric shock weapons are equated with firearms, is different to all comparable countries and excessively restricts the possible cases when this type of weapon can be used," the ministry said.
The ministry also proposes adding a requirement for an analysis of the impact of the changes to the act regarding the use of electric shock weapons, to be conducted before 2025.
"As a result of the amendments, it can be expected that, the use of electric shock weapons (in Estonia) will increase. This is one of the objectives of the amendments, to make electric shock weapons a viable alternative to tear gas or telescopic batons, not (something to use) after them," the ministry stated.
However, the ministry also stressed that, consistent with current practices, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) ought to be required to subsequently analyze all incidents involving the use of electric shock weapons.
Whenever an electric shock weapon is used, a file will be created, with all relevant information stored, including images and other audio-visual materials. This information can then be used to assess whether the use of the taser was lawful and proportionate and whether or not it assisted in achieving the intended outcome. The data will also be used to determine whether any injuries resulted from the taser's use and their specific nature.
Editor: Michael Cole