Tasers, the Upside and the Downside

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CURRENTLY, 14,200 OUT OF 17,876 state and local law
enforcement agencies in the U.S. possess tasers (2009 figures).
In Champaign County, the Sheriff’s Department has
them for use anywhere in the county and in the two jails.
The cities of Urbana and Champaign do not currently have
them, but the Champaign Chief of Police will be discussing
his request for acquiring ten tasers with a City
Council study session sometime in the future.
Law enforcement executives maintain that tasers reduce
injuries to their officers and save the lives of suspects who
would otherwise have been shot with guns. A variety of
reports bears out the claim of reduction of injuries to officers
by comparing the statistics from before and after the use of
tasers. A “prospective field study”, (reported on in the AMA
review of research on tasers, June, 2009) illustrates the possibility
of saving lives of suspects. The Dallas Police Department
activated tasers 426 times from Nov. 2004 to January 2006.
“All suspects who were subdued by this means were evaluated
by paramedics, the jail intake nurse, or a PD tactical physician.
One subject in the “excited delirium” state (high elevated body
temperature – 107 degrees in the ER) collapsed and died after
two standard discharges. No other suspect had an injury
requiring treatment other than simple first aid. In 5.4% of the
deployments the Taser was deemed to have clearly prevented
the use of lethal force. That would be 23 people who were
spared the gun, which kills 50% of the time that police officers
use them. Doing the math, that would mean that one person
died proximate to tasering while 11 – 12 people were saved.
The report ends with an important caveat: “The use of a
comprehensive training program likely contributed to the
strong safety record in this study, as well as the fact that
police personnel knew all Taser applications would be
strictly evaluated for compliance with established departmental
use-of-force policies.” (AMA Report, June, 2009).
Without such oversight for police compliance, tasers are easy
to abuse. For instance, they have been used to torture prisoners
in jails. Four incidents in the Champaign County Jails
came to light in late 2005 as a result of guards “turning in”
their superior. A year earlier, a college student brought in for
disorderly conduct at a bar, was tied to a chair, hands and
feet, with a spitting hood over his head and tasered several
times. He filed complaints with the Sheriff and the FBI, but
there was no corrective action. Then the exact same procedure
happened again with a different prisoner, but this time
guards reported their superior. The Sheriff acted as if he had
never heard of such behavior before.
The death of over 400 people in the U.S. has been
“proximate” (shortly after) to the use of tasers. This phrase
must be used because the scientific research does not yet
exist, which would show the number of taser shots that
cross a threshold into lethal territory. Many people have
encountered their death proximate to tasering with multiple
or prolonged taser shots. The research on what taser
shots to the chest did to people who turned up dead from
cardiac arrest has yielded mixed results. More will be
done. Research needs to happen on why so many of the
dead proximate to tasering are in a category known as
“excited delirium.” This could be, as Taser International
claims, that these people are on their way to death in any
case, with their elevated body core temperatures; or it
might be that there are better methods that could be used
to preserve their lives.
There is a completely different type of downside to the
theory of tasers saving lives: somewhere between 80% and
90 % of those dead proximate to tasering were unarmed! It
is a fairly unusual case (and outside of policy) in which
police use guns on individuals who are not in possession
of a weapon on their person. It could be that the police are
choosing the taser in situations where they have the gun
option, but in our county (Champaign), the use of force
policy of the Sheriff states that police are not to use tasers
with someone possessing a weapon unless that policeman
is covered by another police officer carrying a gun.
The biggest downside to tasers is that they are increasingly
used around the country at use-of-force levels below
#5 and #4; they are also used against “active resisters” (#3)
and “passive resisters” (#2), which includes anyone who
does not comply with orders readily or gives the officer
“backtalk.” Each police department in the country is free
to craft its policy for placing the taser situationally. The
police officer is then bound by the department policy, not
by any law.
The now infamous, recent case in point was the 72-year
old woman in Texas who refused to sign her traffic ticket,
and when the officer said he might have to taser her, she
said “I dare you.” Then he did. Children as young as six
have been tasered in Florida, where School Resource Officers
have tasers. Children, as parents will attest, have a
non-compliant tendency. So do the mentally ill, who are
getting tasered in hospitals for the physically ill and for the
mentally ill, (yes, here in our County too) as well as in
jails/prisons and on the streets.
Tasers seem to have become entrenched in American society
with amazing ease and speed. How can we get a handle
on the situation? Is it possible to move in the direction of
the original vision of “protecting life by taser?” Maybe. But
first, the myth of the non-lethal weapon that “never killed
anyone” (Taser International website, www.Taser.com and
the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois)
has to be shoved aside as the advertising hype that it is,
coming from the manufacturer of this device, Taser International.
For how many decades did the cigarette industry
advertise that “four out of five doctors say that smoking is
not harmful to your health?”
This myth has a lethal effect all of its own because it is a
sidebar comment in the training that is done by Taser
International to police departments. Coroners who have
written on death certificates that death was due to tasering
or that it contributed to death have been successfully sued
by Taser International. Despite protests from the American
Association of Forensic Pathologists and the Association of
Medical Examiners, this stands as a legal fiction. It is legally
impossible to die from tasering, which is why only one of
78 suits for wrongful death against Taser International has
been won. This will change only with continuing scientific
medical research done independently of Taser International,
which has sponsored much of the research to date.
Meanwhile, the relatives and advocates for those dead
proximate to tasering are having somewhat better luck
with lawsuits against police departments or Sheriffs. There
was one filed recently against the Peoria Police Department
for tasing a severely autistic young man twelve times.
He died. Thus, the police officer can be caught in the middle
between the training that does not inform him/her of
all the risks involved and what can happen as a result of
tasing – a) the wrong person, i.e. an at-risk person who is
not threatening the life or safety of another or b) tasing too
many times for any individual to sustain.
The final piece that needs to change is up to citizens to
A) a reasonable use-of-force policy that does not give
police the right to shoot 50,000 volts of electricity
for five seconds via barbs in the flesh for any transgression
at all, but restricts it to situations of violence
(#4 and #5 on the Federal law Enforcement
Training Center scale) Amazingly, the placement of
tasers at each level of force is totally up to the discretion
of each police department (GAO report).
B) a public use-of-force policy statement, up on departmental
websites, not a document that must be FOIA’d.
C) a procedure following a death proximate to tasering
that is similar to what is employed for guns. When
a person is killed by police gunfire, the police officers
are given a period of time off while an investigation
is done as to whether the actions taken were
proper, and a report is given to the news media.
D) accountability by such means as a Civilian-Police
Review Board, so that internal review can be called
into question by the public without the expense
and agony of lawsuits.
In the process, the police and the public might even
learn things, so as to better protect all of us – to save injury
and lives.

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