By Steven DiJoseph
Taser stun guns have been at the center of an ongoing controversy for years with respect to their safety as Ã¢â‚¬Å“non-lethalÃ¢â‚¬Â weapons. The debate has developed along two distinct lines, however.
The first is whether Tasers, even when used as instructed, are potentially deadly because of a number of pre-existing conditions suffered by many individuals or due to the location at which the shocking device attaches itself to a suspect in some situations.
The second has to do with training procedures and deployment of the weapon since many complaints and claims of injury and death have been association with such things as repetitive shocks, extended-duration shocks, unnecessary shocks to suspects that pose no real danger to anyone, shocks to suspects whose respiratory, neurological, or cardiovascular systems are already compromised by illegal (or even legal) drugs, alcohol, over-exertion, or emotional distress.
The death of a 56-year-old wheelchair-bound disabled woman in Florida after being shocked by a Taser stun gun has only heated up the controversy on both fronts.
Over the past two years, safety concerns have continued to mount against the company on three fronts: (1) increased reports of deaths and injuries directly associated with the use (or abuse in many cases) of the stun gun; (2) deaths and injuries indirectly associated with the device; and (3) injuries to law enforcement officers during training exercises involving the Taser.
In October, the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) chapters of Nevada and Northern California mounted a two-front assault on Taser International. In Nevada, the ALCU filed a $10 million federal wrongful death and civil rights action arising out of the death of 47-year-old Keith Tucker who died after being shocked multiple times with a Taser during a struggle with the Las Vegas police.
In a report released by the ALCU (Northern California), the safety of the Taser stun gun has been questioned on several levels. “While the Taser stun gun has the potential to save lives … it poses a serious health risk as long as it remains largely unregulated,” the report released in San Francisco states.
In early September a Chicago teenager was caused to go into ventricular fibrillation as a result of being shocked with a Taser. That was significant because Taser International has always maintained that its stun guns cannot cause this usually fatal heart disturbance in which the heart loses the ability to pump blood.
Many lawsuits allege Taser has ignored credible research suggesting the device can be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.
For example, using a number of sources, The Arizona Republic has now compiled a list of 167 cases in the United StatesCanada since 1999 where a death followed the use of a Taser stun gun. (http://www.azcentral.com/specials/taser/#).Ã‚Â and
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Arizona Republic, using computer searches, autopsy reports, police reports, media reports and Taser’s own records, has identified 167 cases in the United States and Canada of death following a police Taser strike since September 1999. In 27 cases, medical examiners said Tasers were a cause, a contributing factor or could not be ruled out in someone’s death. In 35 cases, coroners and other officials reported the stun gun was not a factor. Below is a synopsis of each case. The Republic requested autopsy reports for all of the cases and so far has received 50.Ã¢â‚¬Â
On July 17, 2005, the Associated Press reported a Texas man died after being shocked between three and six times with a Taser by an off-duty police officer who was acting as a security guard. The manÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wife said she was suing Taser International because her husband Ã¢â‚¬Å“didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t deserve the death penalty.Ã¢â‚¬Â It appears the men had done little more than trespass on private property and confront the officer who had chased him.
The report went on to state: Ã¢â‚¬Å“In the past nine months, at least six people in Texas Ã¢â‚¬â€œ including three in Fort Worth Ã¢â‚¬â€œ have died after authorities shocked them with a Taser gun.Ã¢â‚¬Â
On July 27, 2005 a prisoner being held in a Queens, New York, police station died after being shocked with a Taser.
Finally, on July 30, for the first time, the Cook County (Chicago, Illinois) Medical Examiner ruled the February 10 death of an agitated 54-year-old man was caused by being shocked excessively with a Taser.
The finding indicated that the 57-second shock was sufficient, in and of itself, to have killed the man. Why such a long shock (ten times the usual amount) was administered was not immediately explained.
Numerous police officers in several states have claimed they suffered serious injuries after being shocked with the device during training classes.
In early September 2005, a Chicago teenager was caused to go into ventricular fibrillation as a result of being shocked with a Taser. That was significant because Taser International has always maintained that its stun guns cannot cause this usually fatal heart disturbance in which the heart loses the ability to pump blood.
Apparently, the only reason the teenager survived was that he received immediate medical attention. Dr. Wayne H. Franklin, a pediatric electrophysiologist at ChildrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Memorial Hospital in Chicago (and a second doctor), claimed that an electrocardiogram confirmed that the boy did, in fact, suffer fibrillation.
Dr. Franklin stated that this case demonstrated the danger posed by Tasers and why portable defibrillators should be available whenever the stun guns may be used.
Taser International immediately countered the medical opinion of the two doctors with an email from a doctor of their own who stated the conclusion was purely speculative and not backed by scientific evidence.
Regardless of the circumstances, Taser has challenged any suggestion, opinion, or finding in every case where the stun gun has been implicated in a death or serious injury.
Although there had been a surge in Taser use in 2003 and 2004, safety concerns and mounting circumstantial evidence of potentially deadly risks associated with the device have caused sales to plunge in 2005.
Those concerns included the specific finding (above) by the Coroner of Cook County, Illinois, that a Taser was, in fact, the cause of death of a man arrested in Chicago.
Taser International issued a training bulletin warning that repeated blasts of the Taser can “impair breathing and respiration.” According to a posting on TaserÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s website, for subjects in a state known as excited delirium, repeated or prolonged stuns with the Taser can contribute to “significant and potentially fatal health risks.”
The three-page bulletin appears to counter instructions in a training manual Taser International issued only last year. It also departs from TaserÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s previous dismissals of safety concerns raised by groups such as Amnesty International, which has documented well over 100 U.S. and Canadian deaths of people stunned by Tasers.
A lack of adequate testing and independent medical evidence supporting the companyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s bold marketing claims have been cited by such diverse critics as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a consulting electrical engineer as reasons for removing the stun guns from the market until more extensive testing is done especially with respect to how the device affects pregnant women, people on drugs, or those with heart conditions.
Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police has suggested that further testing is needed. The organization advocates using the device only to subdue violent suspects; not to use it on handcuffed persons unless they are Ã¢â‚¬Å“overly assaultive;Ã¢â‚¬Â to use it the least number of times; and to seek medical attention for anyone who has been shocked.
In addition, all types of Taser-related lawsuits abound. Personal injury and death claims have been commenced in a number of states. In March 2005, Mesa, Arizona, settled a claim by a 43-year-old man who fell out of a tree after being shocked twice with a Taser by a city police officer. The City paid $2.2 million to the man who became a quadriplegic and another $200,000 to the hospital where he was treated.
The potential for huge personal injury and death claims have left many municipalities rethinking their purchase of Tasers. Some police forces have either stopped issuing the weapons or have pulled them of the street altogether. Other cities have backed off making additional purchases or have imposed stricter conditions for their use.
A recent training bulletin issued by Taser, has now advised police that Ã¢â‚¬Å“repeated, prolonged, and/or continuous exposures to the Taser may cause strong muscle contractions that may impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the probes are placed across the chest or diaphragm.Ã¢â‚¬Â
All of these considerations on both sides of the debate seemed to have converged in the Florida case, however.
It is difficult to imagine how a wheelchair bound 56-year-old woman could have posed so serious a threat to a number of able-bodied police offices that she needed to be shocked by 50,000 volts of electricity in her wheelchair.
Even assuming she was, in fact, brandishing knives and a hammer as claimed, her threat was, at best, easily avoided because of her very limited mobility. Moreover, her age, obvious disability, and confinement made it clear to the responding police officers that this was not an optimum situation for the use of a stun gun.
Potential breathing problems and other potentially serious physical consequences should have been considered before shocking a woman who could easily have been Ã¢â‚¬Å“waited outÃ¢â‚¬Â or otherwise minimized as a threat by alternative strategies.
Now, the death is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement while to two officers involved have been put on paid administrative leave.
The dead woman, Emily Marie Delafield, lost consciousness following the shocking and later died at Orange Park MedicalCenter.
This latest death has prompted Florida legislators to contemplate action to direct law enforcement agencies to adopt procedures restricting the use of stun guns to situations where a suspect has become combative or puts one or more officers in clear and immediate danger from an aggressive advance.
Florida is one of several states now at a cross-road over what to do about limiting or otherwise controlling the use of stun guns. Liability judgments and settlements threaten to seriously imperil the finances of a number of smaller cities and counties. Several law enforcement officers have also been prosecuted, disciplined, convicted, or forced to resign over charges stemming from the alleged misuse, abuse, or excessive use of stun guns.
Thus, while there is no doubt that Tasers and other stun guns have saved the lives of police officers, civilians, and even suspects, there is an equal conviction that the devices have maimed or killed suspects who did not deserve to die or suffer serious injuries.
Clearly, Tasers have been misused and abused. They have been used as an easy way out of situations where other less problematic strategies may have worked if given the chance. The devices have been improperly utilized and deployed without adequate training and follow-up refresher courses in their proper use. They have been used on suspects who are clearly under the influence of narcotics or alcohol, suffering from physical or emotional problems, or in locations where being shocked will greatly increase the likelihood of a serious or fatal injury. They have been used in cases where merely displaying the device would have caused the suspect to surrender.
All of these situations raise serious issues with respect to the adequacy of the training given to officers carrying the devices as well as to the need for extremely strict regulation and supervision of their use in all cases where there is a confrontation between a suspect and the police.
While the underlying issue of the deviceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s safety in general is still very much a topic for investigation and public concern, its misuse and abuse are far more serious matters. Clearly, Tasers and other stun guns will never be perfectly safe and they may always cause some injury, or even deaths, due to unknown medical conditions a suspect may be suffering from at the time of the confrontation.
The goal should be to limit those occurrences to the absolute minimum by fully understanding the potential consequences associated with the proper use of stun guns as well as to take all possible precautions to eliminate the abuse, misuse, or excessive use of the device. Until both objectives are achieved people will continue to die or be injured unnecessarily.