Is the Taser Really a “Non-Lethal” Weapon?

Numerous deaths associated with the device raise questions about its safety

By Stef Morisi –

In recent years, law enforcement agencies nationwide have sought to integrate a number of non-lethal alternatives to deadly force into their arsenal of crime-fighting weapons. The use of spike strips, rubber bullets, teargas, and Tasers has increased in circumstances where deadly force is either inappropriate or should only be used as a last resort. Unfortunately, in the case of the Taser, a “non-lethal” weapon that is only supposed to incapacitate its target, there has been an alarmingly high number of fatal encounters reported.

Since 2001, over 480 people have died after being “Tased” by law enforcement officers. In response to this figure, Rick Smith, Co-Founder of Taser International told David Martin in a 2011 60 Minutes interview that, “The vast majority of those, there was a clear other cause of death… we’re talking about less than 20 over a decade.”

Taser International, the device’s manufacturer, does continue to maintain that its product is safe and relatively harmless when used properly.  The inherent problem in this position is that it is based on testing procedures that the Taser will be used on healthy and medically stable people.

The real-life situations, in which Tasers are being used, however, are markedly different than those involving staged tests under carefully controlled circumstances. In real-life situations, Tasers are being used on people in various degrees of agitation and emotional stress, and whose conduct has become unruly, combative, dangerous, or destructive. There are also unknown complicating factors such as age, the presence of drugs (illegal or prescription) or alcohol, or underlying medical or psychological conditions, which can greatly increase the risk of death.

It is also important to note that, because Tasers are perceived as non-lethal, they are being used more frequently as the weapon of first resort.  This has led to the weapons increased usage in inappropriate circumstances, and on more vulnerable members of society.   The amount of force used should be proportional to the threat; however, a study by Amnesty International found that 90% of Taser-related deaths from 2001-2008 involved individuals who were unarmed.  It was also found that Tasers have been used on children, the elderly, the mentally handicapped, and even a pregnant woman who later miscarried.

Shocking Deaths

A Taser uses electrical currents to disrupt voluntary control of muscles and is categorized as a conductive electrical device (CED). Taser International calls the mechanism “Electro-Muscular Disruption (EMD) technology.”   The device produces a 50,000-volt shock through an electrified projectile barb that hooks into the skin. The shock continues until the trigger is released or the battery depletes.

The extremely high voltage shock overrides the body’s central nervous system, causing uncontrollable contraction of muscles.  While one shock is the desired exposure, one study found that additional shocks are required to immobilize a subject about one-third of the time.

Theoretically, the Taser incapacitates the suspect, thereby preventing him from harming himself or others, while affording officers with an opportunity to safely approach, disarm, apprehend, and physically restrain the suspect. Of course, in test situations, the subject is a non-agitated, relatively calm, healthy individual (such as a police officer or technician). Tests are also conducted in controlled environments with safety mats, medical personnel at the ready, and any number of assistants who are there to catch the test subject and otherwise prevent him from injuring himself when he loses control of his muscles. (Significantly, even under such controlled conditions, a number of law enforcement officers have been injured.)

In reality, however, law enforcement officers rarely, if ever, come across situations that resemble the controlled conditions found in training tests. In fact, the decision to use a Taser is usually made without knowing all of the variables that might cause risk to the subject. A recent study conducted in Salt Lake City found that, in 47% of the cases in which Utah police used CEDs over the past 2½ years, the subjects were people in altered states – those suffering from mental illness or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  Officers delivered multiple shocks to altered people almost 50% of the time.

It is under these circumstances that Tasers have proven to be particularly deadly. A 43-year-old man died on Long Island (New York) after police officers shocked him twice with a Taser.  Darryl Bain had locked himself and his 78-year-old mother, who had a restraining order against him, in a bedroom.  Bain, who, at the time, was intoxicated and high on cocaine, was shocked once by police in an effort to subdue him.  When they were unable to handcuff the 6’ 3”, 240-pound Bain, the officers shocked him a second time. This caused him to stop breathing. Mr. Bain died shortly thereafter.

On July 17, 2005, the Associated Press reported that 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 man’s wife said she was suing Taser International because her husband “didn’t deserve the death penalty.” It appears the man had done little more than trespass on private property and confront the officer who had chased him.

In April of 2006, a 56-year-old wheelchair bound woman died after being Tased by a Florida police officer. Although the police claimed she had been brandishing knives and a hammer, it is difficult to imagine how she could have posed so serious a threat to a number of able-bodied police officers that she needed to be shocked by 50,000 volts of electricity while in her wheelchair. The officers could have easily avoided her 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 “waited out” or otherwise minimized as a threat by alternative strategies. The dead woman, Emily Marie Delafield, lost consciousness following the shocking and later died at Orange Park Medical Center.

Inadequate Training is a Serious Problem

The number of police injuries has decreased since the introduction of the Taser, which is great. However, the misuse of the taser is bumping the number of injuries and deaths of harmless people way up.

The reports of Taser misuse range from simply inappropriate to the absurd. In extreme cases, police officers have used Tasers on schoolchildren, college students conducting peaceful protests, pregnant women, the physically disabled, mentally handicapped, and the elderly.  It was recently reported that an officer Tased an unruly 10-year-old girl who refused to shower before bedtime. In November 2006, a UCLA student was Tased in the school library by a campus security guard for refusing to show his library card. In a shocking and widely publicized incident caught on a police dash cam video, a highway patrolman is seen repeatedly Tasing an elderly woman during a traffic stop simply because she was uncooperative.

In September 2008, a mentally disturbed man was Tased by police as he stood naked on top of a storefront in Brooklyn, New York.  Upon being shocked, he immediately fell headfirst to the sidewalk – a two-story drop. He died a few hours later. This unsettling event was caught on video and witnessed by a crowd of horrified onlookers.  It reignited concerns about the safety of Tasers and whether police training procedures were adequate.

The 35-year-old victim, Iman Morales, was described by those who knew him as well-mannered and clean cut. He had become severely distraught earlier that morning due to a bad reaction to a new prescription for his chemical imbalance.  Officers attempted to talk Morales down, but he would not cooperate.  His mother watched helplessly and pleaded with the officers not to hurt him. She repeatedly told them her son was sick.  He demonstrated significant mood swings before he was Tased.

After Morales refused to comply with their orders, Lieutenant Michael Pigott ordered a sergeant to use a Taser on Morales. The police did order an inflatable cushion to break Morales’ fall, but felt they could not wait any longer to take action. An internal police investigation followed the incident, but no one was surprised when Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced that the use of the Taser in this case violated department rules and that he was ordering additional training.

A tragic footnote to this case is that, shortly after the NYPD placed the blame for the incident on the mishandling of the situation by the officers at the scene, Lt. Pigott, a decorated career member of the force, committed suicide. His widow is now suing the City of New York for having made her husband a scapegoat in this matter.

Situations like these have become more common as Tasers have grown in popularity with law enforcement agencies.  Because of its non-lethal description, the Taser is often used as an inappropriate response in circumstances where negotiation, more accurate evaluation of the situation, or simply waiting out the subject would have been used in the past.

In at least six cases in which people have died, Tasers were used on individuals suffering from medical conditions such as seizures – including a doctor who had crashed his car when he suffered an epileptic seizure. He died after being repeatedly shocked at the side of the highway when, dazed and confused, he failed to comply with an officer’s commands.

Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said a major concern now is that officers will use Tasers in situations where they traditionally had used much less force, and whether civilians will be unnecessarily and more frequently subjected to their use.  “Is it actually an alternative that leads to reduced use of firearms by the police?” Mr. Dunn said. “Or does it lead to increased use of force? The concern is we are going up the ladder of force, as opposed to coming down the ladder.”

A  Michigan police officer was reprimanded for having Tased a suspect who was already handcuffed. As a result of this inappropriate use of a Taser, Rocky Allred, 43, fell to the ground, fractured his jaw, chipped a tooth, and required eight stitches. On August 20, 2005, a female protester was repeatedly Tased by a Pittsburgh Police officer while she was already on the ground and presenting no danger to the police.

There are numerous other reports of suspects being shocked two or more times for not complying with officers’ demands after already having been Tased once.  Since the Taser is meant to immobilize a suspect, using it to force a subject to comply with instructions demonstrates improper training or intentional misuse of the Taser. It may also be more difficult for the suspect to obey, move, or speak after being tased the first time, therefore being tased again becomes meaningless.

In a 2011 60 Minutes interview, Geoffrey Alpert, author of the National Institute of Justice’s Taser study, stated, “When used properly, the taser is a very effective tool in law enforcement.” However, he also stated that some officers are “using them way to fast.”

Marcus Martin, Las Vegas’ Police Department’s Chief told 60 Minutes, “When you consider in 2004 we had 573 uses. We’re down to 247 at the end of 2010.” 247 uses of a taser may not be an astronomical number, but when you consider that over 500,000 officers in the United States carries a taser, the number sure does get scary.

When asked if he thinks the officers reached for the taser to quickly, Martin replied, “I think there might have been those instances. But that’s the same with any tool that comes along. Again, we have to go back and we have to train that out of those officers.”

Not every person in law enforcement feels that the taser is the best solution. The Police Commissioner of Baltimore, Frederick Bealefeld, feels that the taser is safer in certain situations, but thinks that there are better ways to handle the situation and avoid using force.

Bealfeld told 60 Minutes’ interviewer David Martin, “That we don’t substitute our basic responsibility to a short-cutted method of deploying a Taser to get people to comply.”

Conflicting Studies
Despite growing concerns over the dangers associated with the Taser itself as well as its misuse, Taser International reports more than 345,000 units have been sold to 12,750 law enforcement and military agencies in 44 countries, with 4,500 agencies distributing them to all of their members.

Existing studies – many of them funded by the law enforcement industry – have found the risk of these weapons to be generally low in healthy adults, and portray these devices as a safe alternative to more extreme measures.  This has led to further deployment of the weapon not only on the streets, but also in a number of high schools. These studies, however, are limited in scope and show the need for more understanding of the effects such devices have on subjects who have underlying medical conditions or who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs (prescription as well as illegal).

A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found the risk of injury to suspects apprehended with Tasers typically fell more than 60% when compared to those arrested without the devices.  The Department of Justice funded the study, one of several it says it will use to determine which “use of force” policies allow police to work most safely.

Dr. Zian Tseng, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, questions the results stating: “The study does nothing to examine the harm side of the Taser equation, only the benefits side.”  Dr. Tseng, who has studied Taser-related deaths, believes all agencies that use Tasers should have automatic external defibrillators in the event of cardiac arrest. Recent independently-funded animal studies have found the use of electro-shock weapons can cause fatal cardiac arrhythmias in pigs.

Of great concern is the recent report that nearly 10% of Tasers tested in a study commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation delivered significantly more electrical current than the manufacturer said was possible, underscoring the need for independent verification and testing of such devices.

Amnesty International believes industry claims that stun guns are safe and non-lethal do not stand up to scrutiny and has called on governments to limit their deployment to life-threatening situations or to suspend their use altogether.  ”Tasers are not the ‘non-lethal’ weapons they are portrayed to be,” says Angela Wright, US researcher at Amnesty International. “They can kill and should only be used as a last resort.  The problem with Tasers is that they are inherently open to abuse, as they are easy to carry and easy to use and can inflict severe pain at the push of a button, without leaving substantial marks.”

An Amnesty International study, which includes information from 98 autopsies, found that 90% of those who died after being shocked were unarmed and many did not appear to have presented a serious threat. Many were also subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks – far more than the five-second “standard” cycle – or by more than one officer at a time.  Some subjects had even been more than once for failing to comply with police commands after they had already been incapacitated by the first shock.

While many Taser-related deaths have been attributed to factors such as drug intoxication, medical examiners have concluded that Taser shocks have caused or contributed to at least 50 of these deaths.

Although Taser International has always maintained its product is safe, in October 2009, it issued new recommendations calling on law enforcement to avoid shocking people in the chest. This is the first time Taser has admitted a potentially serious health risk with the devices.

Taser International’s Rick Smith also told 60 Minutes, “…we take the most dangerous situations and we make them safer.”

However, until Taser International revamps its training protocols or law enforcement agencies implement and enforce stricter guidelines for Taser use, the manner and situations in which the devices are used will continue to raise serious safety issues.

Dangerous Products, General

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