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How dangerous are Tasers?

May 8, 2009

Dear Cecil:

How lethal are Tasers? I know there's talk about police being Taser-happy and torturing people with these devices, but has anyone been Tasered to death?

Cecil replies:

News a little slow getting up to Calgary, Dugie? Lots of people have died after being Tasered — which is not to say they were necessarily Tasered to death. According to a widely publicized Amnesty International study last year, 334 people in the U.S. plus 25 more in Canada died between 2001 and 2008 after being zapped with a Taser by cops. The Taser's defenders say it beats shooting people and reduces the risk of stray bullets injuring bystanders. Wrong argument, says AI. The Taser isn't a replacement for guns but rather for billy clubs and such — for a lot of cops it's become the default method of subduing the unruly. OK, getting whupped upside the head in the old days wasn't a pleasant experience, but at least it didn’t involve 50,000 volts.

Taser is an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's electric rifle," a tribute to Tom Swift, boy-genius hero of a long-running kid’s book series early last century. (Taser inventor Jack Cover was a fan.) Tasers work by firing two barbed nitrogen-propelled darts into skin or clothing, then delivering a high-voltage shock at low current. They can also be used in "drive stun" mode, where the darts don't fire; here you have to hold the weapon against the subject's body while pulling the trigger.

A well-aimed Taser shot reduces an uncooperative suspect to a twitching blob. Being hit by 50,000 volts hurts like hell, and can cause vertigo, disorientation, and amnesia. Taser darts can lacerate your skin (sometimes requiring stitches) and a couple of cases have been reported of Taser darts sticking in somebody's eye.

Does it get worse than that? Taser fans say no. TASER International, maker of the device, compiled a database of reports on Tasered human subjects from 1999 to 2002, which paints a rosy picture, claiming a few minor injuries and no deaths over 34 months. A defense department study found the rate of severe injuries was only 0.6 percent, and police departments have claimed significant reductions in injury rates to both officers and suspects.

Amnesty International tells a different story, one that leaves lingering questions. Alarming as a death toll of 359 sounds, it turns out to be difficult to tie them all to the Taser jolt. AI admits as much: "Amnesty International's review is not a scientific study, nor is the organization in a position to reach conclusions regarding the role of the Taser in each case." What struck me when I reviewed the deaths was how few the medical examiner thought were directly attributable to the Taser. In the huge majority of cases, drugs, alcohol, and/or poor health were cited as contributing factors.

Are MEs just covering up for the cops? Maybe, maybe not. Medical journals speak of "sudden in-custody death syndrome," which is enough to spike anybody's BS meter. However, some experts insist that physical restraint that isn’t in itself lethal can combine with factors like heart disease and stimulant use to cause a hyperagitated state and often death in someone resisting arrest. And that’s without Tasers in the picture; add a zap or two and it’s hard to say exactly what’s doing the victim in. One study of Taser-coincident deaths from 2001-’05 showed more than half the victims had cardiovascular disease, more than 75 percent were on illegal drugs, and close to 90 percent were on some sort of stimulant (including caffeine) at the time of death. Research has found police often use Tasers when a suspect is out of control and apparently under the influence — exactly, the theory goes, when the risk of SICDS is high.

In 2005 the Potomac Institute, a think tank, analyzed 72 cases of Taser-coincident death tabulated by AI and found some common threads: drug use by the suspect, physical restraint by the police, and no clear proof that the Taser was the cause of death. Their conclusion? The risk of death due primarily to Taser was between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 100,000.

Let's put the issue squarely. Amnesty International tells of officers Tasering schoolchildren, pregnant women, the elderly, etc — these jamokes should be fired. But often cops have to get the cuffs on some raving lunatic they can't just leave walking the streets. Almost any sublethal method of persuasion carries risks. Pepper spray can cause potentially fatal reactions, police dogs can do serious damage, plastic and bean-bag bullets can kill. Nightsticks and choke holds I don't need to tell you about. Tasering the guy presents a non-negligible chance you could kill him. But what do you do instead?

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References

Amnesty International Less Than Lethal? The Use of Stun Weapons in US Law Enforcement London, United Kingdom: Amnesty International Publications, 2008. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/010/2008/en/65fd4233-cb63-11dd-9ec2-e57da9519f8c/amr510102008en.pdf

Amnesty International List of Deaths Following Use of Stun Weapons in US Law Enforcement, June 2001 to 31 August 2008 London, United Kingdom: Amnesty International Publications, 2008. http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR51/146/2008/en/a4e3aa10-cb62-11dd-9ec2-e57da9519f8c/amr511462008en.pdf

Chen, Sandy L. et al. “Perforating ocular injury by Taser” Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology (2006): 378-380.

Ho, Jeffrey D. et al. “Cardiovascular and Physiologic Effects of Conducted Electrical Weapon Discharge in Resting Adults” Academy of Emergency Medicine (2006): 1-7.

Jenkinson, Emma et al. “The relative risk of police use-of-force options: Evaluating the potential for deployment of electronic weaponry.” Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 13 (2006): 229–241.

McBride, Dennis K., and Tedder, Natalie B. “Efficacy and Safety of Electrical Stun Devices” Potomac Institute for Public Policy 29 March 2005.

O’Halloran, Ronald L., and Frank, Janice G. “Asphyxial Death During Prone Restraint Revisited: A Report of 21 Cases” The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology 21.1 (2000): 39-52.

Robison, Debra et al. “Sudden In-Custody Death Syndrome” Topics in Emergency Medicine 27.1 (2005): 36-43.

Stratton, Samuel J. et al. “Factors Associated With Sudden Death of Individuals Requiring Restraint for Excited Delirium” American Journal of Emergency Medicine 19.3 (2001): 187-191.

“Taser Use in Restraint-Related Deaths” Prehospital Emergency Care 10.4 (2006): 447-450.

Truscott, Amanda. “A knee in the neck of excited delirium.” CMAJ 178.6 (2008): 669-670.

Vilke, Gary M. et al. “Physiological Effects of a Conducted Electrical Weapon on Human Subjects” Annals of Emergency Medicine (2007): 1-7.

Wang, Ng and Chehade, Mark. “Taser Penetrating Ocular Injury” American Journal of Ophthalmology 139.4 (2005): 713-715.

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