The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Taser Concerns Grow As Death, Injuries Mount

by Andrew Stelzer

As police use of stun devices sparks controversy and investigation, some departments are slowing their Taser orders while still others add the shock weapon to their arsenal.

Feb. 17, 2005 – The death of a 54-year-old and the hospitalization of a14-year-old after police stunned them with a controversial weapon last week in Chicago are the latest in a growing number of debatable uses of the potentially deadly Tasers, which is sparking community outrage across the country. The teenager went into cardiac arrest last Monday after police shocked him with the 50,000-volt weapon, and although he survived, another man died after police shocked him on Thursday.

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The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services' guardianship administrator, which serves as the teen's legal guardian, has filed lawsuits against both the police officer and the city of Chicago. The incidents come as the Taser manufacturer’s advertising and marketing techniques are under federal investigation.

Since June 2001, more than 70 people have died in police custody in the US and Canada after being struck with Tasers, with the number of reported cases rising each year, according to a November 2004 report by Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization. In five of these cases, an autopsy found that the Taser shock was a main cause of death. In several others, coroners’ reports identified the Taser as a likely contributing factor.

Additionally, the weapon’s critics maintain that many deaths in which the Taser has not been implicated could, in fact, be related to electrical shock from the device. Amnesty International commissioned a forensic pathologist to review some fatal cases in which Tasers were used. In some cases he found that, in addition to the "official" causes of death, which are often listed as heart failure, drug use, or head injuries, Tasers may have contributed.

People who have been "tased" report extreme, debilitating pain.

The guns typically work by firing a pair of pronged darts that latch onto clothing or skin and send a 50,000 volt shock into the body in five-second bursts, which overrides the subject’s central nervous system, causing uncontrollable contraction of the muscle tissue and instant collapse. The darts are attached to wires, which can reach up to 21 feet. People who have been "tased" report extreme, debilitating pain.

Taser International, Inc. now equips about 135,000 of the nation's one million police and corrections officers, according to Taser founder Thomas Smith. Over the past few years, more than 5,000 agencies in 49 US states have bought Tasers for approximately $1,000 a piece and given the stun devices to officers, often with minimal training.

Taser International claims that its weapons are a safe alternative to conventional firearms and batons. But critics contend that the company has done very little to study the effects of Tasers on humans of different ages and health backgrounds.

A 1999 study funded by the Department of Justice on an electrical weapon similar to the Taser found that it might cause cardiac arrest in people with heart conditions.

A statistical analysis showed that in 79.6 percent of cases the suspects were unarmed.

"Is being hit by a Taser more dangerous if you are overweight, if you have a heart condition, if you have sickle cell anemia?" asked Amnesty International’s Alistair Hodget, in a recent interview with The NewStandard. "Are there particular people who should not be hit with a Taser under any circumstances?" There are no answers to these questions, and now, while the verdict is still out on the safety of Tasers -- they are beginning to be used more frequently on school children.

Community activists in Miami are calling for a study of the effects of the weapons on children, after the recent tasings of a 6-year-old boy who police say was holding a piece of glass and threatening to cut himself. In another incident in Florida, an officer chased down a 12-year-old girl who was skipping school, and shocked her with a Taser.

In the past few weeks, police officers have tased high school students in schools in Madison, Wisconsin and Prattville, Alabama. Officers in the St. Paul, Minnesota high schools will soon carry Tasers, and in Jacksonville, Florida -- over the objections of The Jacksonville Leadership Coalition, a citizens groups -- Duval county sheriffs officers will soon be patrolling the local middle and high schools with the weapons in their holsters.

The Amnesty study found that Florida is the state in which officials have been most enthusiastic about Tasers. There have been 17 deaths in Florida in Taser- related incidents since 2000. The deaths, the use of the weapon on children and the refusal by most police departments to reconsider their policies is fueling public opposition. On January 12, a Lakeland, Florida police officer shocked 17-year-old Soladoye Oyelowo because he was in the way of the officer who was running to break up a fight between two girls. "Why couldn't he push them out the way?" asked Theodora Oyelowo, the students’ mother, speaking to the Lakeland Ledger.

It is those questionable uses of the weapon that undermine the company’s claim that Tasers decreased use of force. Some law enforcement agencies say that with the introduction of Tasers, the use of guns by officers has gone down, and while Amnesty agrees that an electric shock is often more preferable than a bullet, the group’s analysis finds that because they are perceived as "non-lethal," police often use Tasers when there is no need for any use of force at all.

A statistical analysis of 2,050 Taser field applications across the USA, produced for Taser International in November 2002, showed that in 79.6 percent of cases the suspects were unarmed.

A study by the Denver Post in May 2004 found that the Denver Police Department commonly used Tasers to gain compliance, not to avoid other forms of violence. The Post additionally found that officers sometimes even shocked handcuffed suspects with the painful device.

The Portland, Oregon newspaper Willamette Week, has reported on Oregon police using Tasers on people for nonviolent offenses, such as littering, jaywalking, and failure to obey an officer.

"If Tasers were used as a last resort instead of using guns, I think that would be different," Tane Ward told KXAN TV. Ward was one of dozens of protestors gathered at the Austin, Texas Police Department headquarters last Friday calling for a ban on what they call a torture device, in response to the police tasing of a peaceful protestor at an anti-inauguration rally on January 20. "The fact is the way these police are being trained is to use a Taser at whim."

The majority of law enforcement agencies in Florida and around the country are not bowing to growing public pressure to take Tasers off the streets, but there are a few exceptions. Though the Boston Police Department won a change to state law last year in order to allow officers to use stun guns, it has since delayed buying Tasers. And the recent incidents in Chicago have prompted a halt to issuing any additional Tasers to officers in that city, although the 200 that are already on the streets will continue to be deployed.

In spite of the controversy, however, Taser International continues to find willing customers for its product. On February 14, the El Paso, Texas Police Department and the Pima County, Arizona Sheriff's Department became the latest agencies to place orders for the weapons.

Some departments are waiting. The Eugene, Oregon police department, for instance, is not against the use of Tasers, but due to a limited budget, decided not to buy them this year, and instead will wait to see how the controversy is handled by law enforcement agencies elsewhere.

"We’re looking at how we can have a good policy so that we don’t have to have the same learning curve that the rest of the country’s having around Tasers," explained Eugene Police Captain Steve Swenson in a recent interview with TNS.

Asked about a recent incident in Rock Hill, SC, where an officer used a Taser gun to subdue a 75-year-old woman who was distraught and refused to leave a nursing home because she could not find a sick friend, Swenson said that is the type of incident he is hoping to avoid. "I hope we’re doing what a lot of folks are doing, which is before you implement a new tool you study it and see how effective it is," he said.

A few police departments have begun more thorough training programs in response to public pressure; some now say they have officers receive a shock from a Taser themselves so they know what it feels like and to demonstrate that there are no long term effects. But Hodget of Amnesty International notes that police officers "aren’t representative of the general public and they aren’t representative of the people who are being hit by [Tasers]." Additionally, as chronicled in Amnesty International’s report on the weapons, some police departments have discontinued to use Tasers on their own personnel after complaints and some injuries.

More than just a lack of thorough study, law enforcement support for the weapons may have something to do with economics. On January 11, Taser International’s president Tom Smith admitted to USA Today that New York police officers were offered stock options from the company in exchange for helping to oversee Taser’s police department training program. Additionally, Smith said that Taser paid cash to at least 283 police officers to serve as Taser trainers. The company also gave stock options to a medical examiner who works for Taser and has published at least one safety study about the weapon in a scientific journal.

The cracks in Taser International’s refusal to acknowledge the safety concerns surrounding its product may finally be starting to show. In January, the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an informal inquiry into safety claims made by company officials. Following the announcement, a group of Taser International’s shareholders filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, alleging that Taser issued a series of statements describing the safety of its products that were materially false and misleading.

But the weapon is nowhere near disappearing from the streets, even if Taser International suffers from scandal. With Taser Internationals’ stock price fluctuating, gun manufacturer Smith and Wesson and several other companies have indicated they are hoping to jump into the stun gun market.

Taser International is also fighting back, launching a nationwide public relations campaign to reinforce its product's image as a lifesaver. CEO Rick Smith told the Arizona Republic that the company is hiring lobbyists in key cities and states to fight legislation it sees as "counterproductive."

The company also announced last month that it plans to boost the power of its latest model by about 14 percent because it failed to incapacitate subjects about 5 percent of the time.

And the company is stepping up a campaign to market a cheaper version of the stun guns for home use by civilians, which can cost as little as $400. As for training, The X26C, a model sold as a "citizens Taser device" on Taser International’s website, comes with a coupon for an hour of one-on-one instruction with a police officer. Two lower-end models that sell for $400 and $600 each come with training CD-ROMs.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Andrew Stelzer is a contributing journalist.

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