How dangerous are Tasers?

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? Dugie C.,Calgary


Illustration by Slug Signorino

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?

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via