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Cops should have non-lethal weapons

Published:Monday | June 13, 2011 | 12:00 AM

About 40 years ago, a very influential mover and shaker of a political party felt that importing illegal firearms to go to war with the opposing side was justified. Then, as now, the acquisition and retention of power was supreme. Individuals, lives, families, communities and all eligible Jamaicans were depersonalised and simply reduced to 'voters' and 'constituents' (objects to be manipulated and tallied at election time).

The opposing side subsequently felt that importing illegal firearms to 'defend' itself was justified. The resultant armed conflicts snuffed out many lives on both sides. Guns were not only used for offence and defence, they were also used by political enforcers to ensure that the 'electors' voted for the 'right side'. In those days, everyone voted (even the dead, the unconscious and those that were unable to make it to the polling stations).

Guns did more than snuff out many innocent and not-so-innocent lives; they snuffed out freedom (of speech, movement, thought, worship), democracy, innumerable human rights (especially in poor communities), a lot of investment (local and foreign), jobs, recreation, hope, trust and patriotism. Guns also facilitated the birth of criminal gangs.

The gun became a status symbol and the ultimate source of power for the disenfranchised and powerless. It transformed Jamaica into a battleground with some individuals protected by influential movers and shakers of the political parties. Once guns became prevalent enough to wreak havoc on the wider society (and not only in small communities), our constabulary was forced to join the arms race in earnest and equip itself, physically and mentally, for outright war. The overt hostilities exhibited by emboldened thugs forced cops to become aggressive and adopt the gun as the primary weapon for offence and defence in a wide variety of circumstances.

panacea for crime suppression

The extended state of emergency (declared in 1976) entrenched in the security forces many of the negative attitudes (towards civilians) that have endured throughout the decades. Additionally, between genuine shoot-outs with criminal elements, trigger-happy cops and extrajudicial killings - inspired by terrorised communities pleading for rescue, witness intimidation and witness murder - the list of police shootings caught the attention of both local and international human-rights groups. To many cops, the gun became the panacea for crime suppression.

The two recent videotaped and widely publicised shootings by the police highlight the obvious and urgent need for the acquisition of non-lethal weapons, including pepper spray and the stun gun. I am very aware of the drawbacks of stun guns. They are not completely safe and may be dangerous if misused (if discharged repeatedly into, or if the trigger is held for long on, the same person).

In-custody sudden deaths increased sixfold after the stun gun was introduced to California law-enforcement officers; however, this was attributed to misuse. After the first year, with proper use of that electronic device, that figure fell to almost pre-stun gun levels. One study even concluded that, whereas stun gun introduction within jurisdictions showed an increase in in-custody deaths, there was no reduction in police shooting deaths. However, training in when and how to use the device would remedy that problem.

On the other hand, guns are almost always used to kill. The mortality from gunshot wounds varies according to the distance, the number of hits, calibre, type of weapon used and the area hit. The survival statistics for cranial injuries are dismal, and chest and abdominal injuries are more lethal than limb shots.

Obviously, firearms are far more lethal than stun guns. We must reduce police killings, and I see the use of non-lethal weapons as one way to do it.

Garth A. Rattray is a physician with a family practice. Email feedback to and