The safe use of stun guns is drawing criticism as their misuse by police appears to be on the rise.
On July 14, St. Louis Park, Minn. police responded to a report of a Park Health and Rehab patient acting erratically. Zheng Diao, 76, was in possession of a knife and a pair of scissors. Unable to speak English, police attempted to contact with Diao through body gestures. As the police perceived Diao attempting the raise the knife to his throat, the police subdued the man with a Taser, causing Diao to fall on his face.
Diao died of pneumonia as a result of the injuries incurred from the Taser shot.
In Miami Beach, Fla., 18-year-old street artist Israel Hernandez-Llach, died after being hit by a police Taser shot earlier this month. Hernandez-Llach, unarmed and of slender build, was chased and ultimately fired on for spray-painting on an abandoned building. While the nature of Hernandez-Llach’s death is unknown at this time, witnesses report that he received no first aid from the police once it was revealed that he was in distress.
A witness to the chase reported that the police officers “laughed and exchanged high-fives as he lay on the ground, immobilized.” The family is suing the City of Miami Beach for “unnecessary, excessive and unconstitutional force.”
These cases reflect a growing trend of police-related Taser deaths. The blog Electronic Village has logged 544 documented stun gun-related deaths in the United States since 2001. Situations, such as when Ohio’s Franklin County sheriff “[engaged] in a pattern and practice of gratuitous, excessive and unconstitutional use of Tasers against arrestees, pretrial detainees and other prisoners, including pregnant women, incapacitated individuals and those with mental illness,” per a 2011 U.S. Justice Department’s appeal for intervention. In another example, a 2012 report from the Justice Department showed that the Portland police used stun guns against the mentally ill without justification. These illustrate the growing fear of an poorly trained police force indiscriminately using Tasers on the public.
The safeness of ballistic electric shock
Tasers and other stun guns are classified as conducted energy devices (CEDs). Used by more than 15,000 law enforcement and military agencies, the Taser — which, incidentally, stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, named after the fictional adventurer-inventor Tom Swift — was developed in 1974, but was not adopted by law enforcement until 1998, when a non-lethal alternative to gunfire was sought.
The Taser — the leading brand of CEDs — works by firing two barbed dart-like electrodes, which are connected by conductive lead wires to the main unit, via compressed nitrogen charge. The electrodes transmit a 5,000-volt microamperage electric pulse into the target, short-circuiting neural signals along the course of the peripheral nervous system. This causes the target’s muscles to spasm, causing a wave of pain and disorientation to take over and the victim to lose temporary control of his or her body.
A U.S. National Institute of Justice report from 2011 suggests that Taser use is overwhelmingly safe. “Despite the dangers, most CED shocks produce no serious injuries,” the report read. It continued:
A study by Wake Forest University researchers found that 99.7 percent of people who were shocked by CEDs suffered no injuries or minor injuries only. A small number suffered significant and potentially lethal injuries. This NIJ-sponsored study included six police departments and evaluated the results of 962 ‘real world’ CED uses. Skin punctures from CED probes were common, accounting for 83 percent of mild injuries. …
Policymakers and law enforcement officials want to know whether Tasers are safe and effective, and how (if at all) they should be used to match police use-of-force choices with levels of suspect resistance. This study indicates that CED use actually decreases the likelihood of suspect injury.
Tasers and “safe deterrents”
This is challenged by the American Heart Association. The heart functions via electric pulses from the brain, which serve to maintain the muscle’s contraction rhythm. A weakened heart could be susceptible to external shock, causing ventricular fibrillation — the quivering of the ventricles due to an uncoordinated electrical signal. Left unchecked, this can cause asystole (“flatlining”) or cardiac arrest. While a shot to the extremities or the lower back will probably not cause ventricular fibrillation, a shot to the chest has a punch equivalent to the pulse of a Pacemaker.
Since the release of the AHA’s findings, Tasers have since been classified as “less-lethal,” instead of non-lethal. As reported by the NIJ, while CEDs offer a lower suspect injury rate than traditional guns, CED use still contributes to more injuries than other techniques, such as pepper spraying. A 2012 Michigan State University study show that citizens were injured more often when a stun gun was used during apprehension than when no stun gun was available at the time of arrest. In an examination of 13,913 use-of-force cases, 41 percent of all arrestees tagged with a Taser reported injuries, compared to 29 percent of non-Taser arrests that were injured.
A second study conducted in conjunction with the MSU study found that five percent of police officers reported injury when using a stun gun, compared to 10 percent that were injured without using a stun gun.
Researchers argue that the use of a stun gun causes some officers to misevaluate a situation, thinking they are using a “safe” deterrent. “There has been this increased perception that these devices are effective and safe,” said lead researcher William Terrill. “But in terms of safeness, our data conclusively shows they are not safe to citizens. Now, are there concerns to the point that we’re recommending that law enforcement agencies not use them? Absolutely not. We think there needs to be more careful analysis done, and it has to be done in a way that’s fair and objective.”
Ultimately, there is no such thing as a “non-lethal” weapon. Anything used to stop a person can kill a person. In 2012, Taser International acknowledged this fact when the company released this statement:
TASER has changed the generic term describing our handheld products from Electronic Control Device (ECD) to Conducted Electrical Weapon (CEW). We feel Conducted Electrical Weapon is more descriptive of our products and is becoming a more commonly used term. This term also clearly describes these products as weapons that, like all weapons, carry certain risks and need to be handled and operated appropriately.
A tool is only as effective as the way it is used. The majority of all Taser training done in the United States is done by the manufacturer. A serious, disciplined approach to training, registering and monitoring CED use will help to prevent future “mistakes” from occurring.
While it can be argued that an officer shooting someone with a Taser in error is better than an officer shooting someone with a real gun mistakenly, both situations show the same police malpractice and deserve the same response.
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