Weapons wired for violence

Devices: Though used decreasingly on farm animals, cattle prods - along with stun guns - are still employed worldwide in the torture of humans.

October 09, 2003|By Teresa Willis | Teresa Willis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

March 1965, Selma, Alabama. With their nightsticks flailing, burly state troopers chase peaceful voting rights demonstrators, trampling men and women underfoot.

As the victims flee or lie helpless, troopers use electric cattle prods to shock them. When many Americans hear the term "cattle prod" mentioned as a device used on humans, indelible black-and-white television images of those scenes from the '60s come to mind. Similarly, the word "electroshock" evokes visions of institutionalized mental patients strapped to beds.

But these devices continue to be a problem around the world.

Electroshock devices such as stun guns and cattle prods have been sold in the United States for decades. Although stun guns are illegal in Baltimore and Baltimore County, they can be purchased via the Internet, through mail-order catalogs and at trade shows and conventions. Used by some people for self-defense, they also are used as weapons of torture - despite efforts internationally to stop their use.

"Electricity speaks every language known to man," says Dennis Kaufman, president of shock-device manufacturer Stun Tech Inc., who says the devices are useful to law enforcement. "Everybody is afraid of electricity, and rightfully so."

In the early morning of Nov. 2, 1983, 18 plainclothes police detectives surrounded a home on Chicago's South Side to arrest Darrell Cannon, suspected in a drug-related killing a week earlier. Several detectives drove Cannon to a deserted area, then tortured him for a confession. Their last step was to pull down his underwear and apply a cattle prod to his genitals.

In repeated interviews with the press since that day, Cannon has recalled the "burning sensation" that reverberated throughout his body. No one but the detectives heard his screams. "The pain got to the point where I couldn't handle it anymore, and I told them that I'd say whatever they wanted me to say," Cannon has said.

Cannon's sentence was shortened in 2001 after he agreed to drop claims against Chicago Police that they placed a shotgun in his mouth and shocked his genitals. The detectives have left the police department after several victims of abuse came forward and complained about their treatment.

Amnesty International launched an international campaign against stun guns in 1995. According to the organization, three U.S. companies, Stun Tech, Taser International and Novas Products, manufacture stun technology. The organization also reports that since 1990, electroshock devices have been used to torture people in prisons, detention centers and police stations in at least 76 countries, although torture is prohibited under international law.

According to Amnesty, the risk of torture is increased because of the U.S. government's failure to consider the human rights records of countries to which it grants export licenses. A number of these nations purchase electroshock weapons.

The State Department's Report on Human Rights Practices noted that in 1999, Saudi Arabian security forces continued to abuse detainees and prisoners. Yet from 1997 to 2000, U.S. companies received export licenses for Saudi Arabia totaling $3.2 million worth of optical sighting devices, stun guns and shock batons. Figures for stun guns were not separated from those for other devices exported as weapons.

During the same period, the U.S. Commerce Department approved exports of stun guns, electroshock batons and optical sighting devices to Russia for $4.17 million, to Slovenia for $2.16 million, to Bulgaria for $1.54 million, to the United Arab Emirates for $1.2 million and to Croatia for $1.07 million.

Cattle prods and stun guns apply an electrical current across two electrodes. A stun gun incapacitates, while a cattle prod shocks to keep an animal moving.

Smaller than a flashlight at 4 to 6 inches long, a stun gun uses a standard 9-volt battery. It has an inner and outer pair of electrodes. The user presses a button that causes a charge to flow, and the body acts as a conductor. Like static on the communication lines between the brain and the body, it jangles the human command and control systems.

Livestock prods are falling out of favor even in agriculture and animal husbandry. Farmers and cattle truckers use them to get animals onto trucks. The prods range from 22 to 72 inches in length, with flexible or fiberglass shafts; they cause pain and do not significantly affect muscles or the nervous system. A stun gun uses voltage high enough to dump the electrical charge into the entire body; a cattle prod shocks only at the point of contact.

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