THE MAGAZINE

How Safe are Stun Guns?

By Laura Spadanuta

“Don’t tase me, bro.” Four words preceding an incident that set off a firestorm of media coverage of Scottsdale, Arizona–based Taser International’s electronic control devices, also known as conducted energy devices (CEDs) or “stun guns.”

The incident was the “tasing” of a college student during a lecture hall discussion with Senator John Kerry (D-MA) at the University of Florida. Although the police officers in that incident were cleared of any wrongdoing, the attention brought up questions about law enforcement’s use of Tasers.

An interim report from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is conducting a series of studies on CEDs, may give ammunition to proponents of Taser. The report presents preliminary findings from a study of “mortality reviews” by a panel of doctors in cases of deaths following electro-muscular disruption (the effect of a CED shock).

The panel is analyzing findings from autopsies and toxicological analyses and combining that data with “scene investigation, post-exposure symptoms, and post-event medical care,” according to the NIJ.  The panel also reviewed current medical CED research.

NIJ’s research is inspired in part by the controversy surrounding CEDs, as well as a 2004 Amnesty International report documenting cases in which people died after being the target of a CED. Amnesty had a representative on the review board that issued the NIJ report.

Additionally, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) is conducting field research to augment the doctors’ work.

The interim NIJ report found that “there is no conclusive medical evidence within the state of current research that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of CED exposure.” The report went on to state that law enforcement “need not refrain from deploying CEDs, provided the devices are used in accordance with accepted national guidelines,” such as the IACP guidelines. 

When deployed “reasonably,” CEDs were not found to cause increased risk for induced cardiac dysrhythmia. The report found, however, that CED shocks can lead to falls, which may cause injuries, and that CEDs could have indirect effects that lead to injury and death, such as contributing to “stress” when stress is related to cause of death (as in individuals with cardiac disease).

The report pointed out that the effects of CEDs on certain “at-risk” populations, such as those with heart disease, children, and the elderly, are not understood and more data is needed. It also noted that studies looking at the effects of extended CED exposure are limited, although reviews of post-CED exposure deaths find that many of the deaths are associated with extended or continuous CED deployment.

“I think the report does support the contention that it’s not a matter of deciding whether Tasers are good and should stay or are bad and need to go. Tasers can have value, if, in fact, they are used in ‘appropriate circumstances,’” says Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida’s Department of Criminology. Fridell has done research on Taser use and is currently working on a Department of Justice-funded survey regarding police-department use of the weapon.

Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty’s USA program, was pleased that the NIJ report called for additional data. “One of the really important pieces there that they highlighted is something that we’ve been highlighting for years, that there are vulnerable populations that come into contact with police frequently….  We’re really concerned about people who are mentally ill, people who are under the influence of narcotics, people who are pregnant, people who have heart conditions, elderly, youth.  These are all populations that the NIJ study pointed to as needing special consideration.”

Because of the lack of data on the effects of CEDs on these groups, Hashad says, Amnesty takes the stance that these devices should not be used at all until enough research is completed. “If we don’t know what this weapon does when it hits the human body, how can we tell police officers to appropriately use it?”

But others, like Fridell, say stun guns can save lives. And she argues that even in certain situations that might pose higher risk of injury, the other options open to law enforcement might be far worse than the effect of a CED shock. She takes the example of a pregnant woman.

“You have to remember that this visibly pregnant woman is on our radar screen not because she’s sitting quietly on a bench. She is somehow resisting law enforcement. And you can imagine that there are scenarios in which you would much rather have the Taser than something else.”

In addition to vulnerable populations, another area where CED use might be more risky is when the weapon is applied multiple times to the same individual or for extended periods of time. Hashad says that in Amnesty’s analysis of deaths following CED shocks, “We see that a disproportionately large number of individuals have been exposed to multiple and prolonged shocks.” She adds, “I think special care needs to be paid to how the weapon is used, especially in the face of the unknown.”

Extended and multiple Taser discharges factored in a recent case in San Jose, California, in which Taser International was found 15 percent responsible for the death of Robert Heston, while 85 percent was attributed to Heston’s own negligence, since he was on methamphetamine at the time of Taser deployment. Heston went into cardiac arrest after being shocked with multiple Tasers. The court found that the company was partly responsible because it failed to inform officers of the effects of sustained use of the devices. It was the first finding against Taser International in such a case.

According to Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle, Heston’s death fit the symptomatic pattern for “methamphetamine intoxication and associated excited delirium.” Tuttle adds, “[We do not feel that] the verdict is supported by the facts, including the testimony of the world class experts who testified on our behalf with scientific and medical evidence.”

The police officers involved were cleared in that case; it is unclear whether the finding against Taser will set a precedent. Tuttle says Taser plans to pursue legal channels, such as motion for a new trial and a possible appeal.

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