Some communities are sidestepping the debate on Tasers’ safety by simply banning them altogether.
About 16,000 law enforcement agencies internationally use Tasers, but this weekend, five police departments in North Texas — Mansfield, Richland Hills, Crowley, Murphy and Burleson — announced they had removed Taser guns from the list of equipment used by officers.
While none of the Texas-based police department have explicitly explained why they decided to remove the Tasers, Pete Shulte, a private attorney, told a Texas blogger he thought the departments enacted the ban to protect themselves from lawsuits.
Between 2001 and 2012, Amnesty International reported that more than 500 people in the U.S. had died after being shocked with Taser-technology either during their arrest or while in jail. The group urged police departments across the U.S. to at minimum lessen the frequency with which they use the weapon. But based on the number of lawsuits filed against police departments across the country, it’s not apparent that law enforcement listened.
According to Amnesty International, the state with the highest number of Taser-related deaths is California, where 92 people died after being shocked during the study period. The next highest Taser-death state was Florida with 65 deaths, followed by Texas with 37 deaths. The deadliest police department was the Oklahoma City Police Department, which was involved in the Taser-related deaths of seven persons.
Referencing a disclaimer issued by Taser International in 2009 — which said users should not aim for a person’s chest, and adjusted the safety warnings of the product to include that use of the product “could result in death or serious injury” — Shulte says Taser is not legally responsible for any deaths or serious injuries that may occur, leaving police departments on the hook for any lawsuits.
“Well, now what Taser can do is say, ‘Police department, we told you that these devices could cause serious injury or death. It’s your policy that caused the injury to this person so we’re out of it,'” he said.
“Of the hundreds who have died following police use of Tasers in the United States, dozens and possibly scores of deaths can be traced to unnecessary force being used,” said Susan Lee, Americas program director at Amnesty International. “This is unacceptable, and stricter guidelines for their use are now imperative.”
“Even if deaths directly from Taser shocks are relatively rare, adverse effects can happen very quickly, without warning, and be impossible to reverse,” said Lee. “Given this risk, such weapons should always be used with great caution, in situations where lesser alternatives are unavailable.”
Tasers or conducted electrical weapons (CEWs) are electroshock weapons that discharge 50,000 volts into a person, resulting in a complete override of the person’s central nervous system, which causes uncontrollable contractions of the muscle tissue. Not only is a person unable to control their muscles, but the high-intensity shock can lead to serious injuries and death in some circumstances if those volts hit near their vital organs, especially a person’s heart.
Since police officers can fire a taser from as far as 35 feet away from a suspect, law enforcement officials have touted the device as a piece of equipment that has kept officers safe. But in 2012, Amnesty International warned law enforcement agencies the risks associated with this “non-lethal” weapon, which include death, may be higher than once realized.
Tasers: Saving lives or destroying them?
As Amnesty International reported, upon further review of 98 cases where a person died following a Taser shock, 90 percent of those victims were unarmed and many of them were shocked multiple times.
“What is most disturbing about the police use of Tasers is that the majority of those who later died were not a serious threat when they were shocked by police,” said Lee.
Some Taser advocates have tried to reason that most of the Taser-related deaths happened to people who have heart conditions, are intoxicated or struggle. Though Amnesty International reported more than 500 people have died after they were hit by a Taser, there is other research saying the use of Tasers has saved lives and reduced injuries, specifically among officers.
But others, such as Dr. Douglas Zipes from Indiana University’s Krannert Institute of Cardiology, point out that the shock from the weapons “can cause cardiac electric capture and provoke cardiac arrest,” and often lead to an abnormally rapid heart rate and uncontrolled, fluttering contractions.
But still, Steve Tuttle, spokesperson for Taser International, said those studies that found high-rates of abnormal cardiac behavior were flawed, since they only looked at a handful of cases.
“There have been 3 million uses of Taser devices worldwide, with this case series reporting eight of concern,” Tuttle said. “This article does not support a cause-effect association and fails to accurately evaluate the risks versus the benefits of the thousands of lives saved by police with Taser devices.”
He also claimed that some researchers like Zipes, who have testified as expert witnesses against Taser International, may intentionally omit key facts that contradict their opinion of the weapon.
But others, such as Cincinnati defense attorney and legal expert Mike Allen, say that despite Zipes’ ability to earn $1,200 an hour to testify against Taser International, he is a trusted expert and his study “just adds credibility to the position that Tasers could be potentially dangerous.”
Allen added that there have been at least 50 wrongful death lawsuits filed against Taser since the product first went on the market and added that “for a long time, [Taser International] was successful in getting them thrown out of court.
“But now they seem to be getting some large judgments against them and that seems to be the trend,” he said. “There is some evidence the device was not properly tested, and I expect to see potential product liability actions against Taser.”