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Taser deaths: Part 1

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Law enforcement personnel like Tasers, a weapon that is supposed to stun rather than wound. The appeal is that officers can subdue suspects without injuring or killing them. However, these weapons appear to pose a risk of serious injury and death; people have suffered serious injuries or died as a result of being hit with a Taser.

A recent article in the Washington Post confirms this. According to the story, at least 48 people have died this year in the United States after being stunned with a Taser. But, However these deaths the direct result of being hit with a Taser or were other factors involved?

The Post looked at police and court records as well as autopsy records to develop the story. Reporters found that other factors involved in the Taser deaths included being incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, heart disease and falls that caused a suspect to hit his head. At least half of those killed by Tasers were mentally ill. One of those killed was a woman. At least 10 were handcuffed or shackled. The precise role of being stunned with a Taser is complicated in most of the cases and it was often hard to identify the primary cause of death. However, the question remains: Would these people have died if they had not been shot with a Taser?

Only one officer was indicted after these deaths.

Taser Deaths Rare

Taser deaths are relatively rare. Many more people die from other causes when in police custody or while being arrested. When used correctly, Tasers are believed to be safe, preventing injuries to both police and suspects. When law enforcement officers do not follow departmental and product instructions and guidelines, however, Tasers can become lethal weapons.

How Tasers Work

Tasers work in several ways. When in "probe mode," the weapon delivers an electric current that causes the recipient's muscles to lock up. When in "drive-stun" mode, Tasers cause pain at the point of contact - pain that law enforcement officers can use to control dangerous individuals. Police refer to this as "pain compliance."

The company that manufactures Tasers has warned users about the need for caution when operating in drive-stun mode, especially when dealing with suspects who are mentally ill. The company noted in its product warnings, "Drive-stun use may not be effective on emotionally disturbed persons or others who may not respond to pain due to a mind-body disconnect." The warning adds that if a person is still noncompliant after being drive-stunned, police should not continue to try to subdue him or her by drive-stunning.

At least nine of the 48 cases this year involved individuals who were hit in the drive-stun mode.

Some law enforcement agencies have policies prohibiting the use of drive-stunning on handcuffed or otherwise restrained suspects. However, in the one case where police were indicted after a jailed suspect died, the deceased was repeatedly shot in the drive-stun mode, then left alone in his cell for 90 minutes without being checked. At the 90-minute mark, the suspect was dead.

Tasers have been controversial since they were introduced in 1976. There have been hundreds of lawsuits filed against both police departments and the manufacturer. Five states, the District of Columbia and some cities have introduced restrictions that primarily affect civilians with Tasers, but the use of Tasers by law enforcement is almost universal in the United States. Taser has won most of the lawsuits filed against the company in cases involving the use of the device by police officers.

However, plaintifffs have won a handful of lawsuits against police departments. These wins include an award of $10 million (later reduced to $5.5 million by a judge) after a 17-year-old boy was shot with a Taser for more than half a minute and later died after he was thought to have eaten a snack without paying for it while working in a convenience store. The case was later retried and settled for a confidential amount.

A future blog post will describe some of the instances where suspects died because of excessive Taser use by law enforcement.


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