Arizona Sheriff Announces Test of Alternative to Taser Stun Gun
Date Published: November 21, 2005
By Steven DiJoseph
Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, has announced that his deputies will begin testing 30 new stun guns as an alternative to Tasers. The new electric stun guns are being donated by Stinger Systems Inc., and will be evaluated for safety, price, and risk factors.
According to Arpaio: “Stinger tells me their weapons have better target attainment, they cost less and are cheaper to operate. If those claims are true, I may very well move away from Taser weapons.”
Taser International, which is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, is the largest manufacturer of stun guns currently arming over 8,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies with some 171,000 units. Notwithstanding the widespread use of Tasers, serious safety issues including numerous deaths have plagued the company for some time now driving its stock price down nearly 80% this year.
The stun gun produced by Florida-based Stinger Systems is designed to shut off automatically after only four seconds. Taser has been criticized by experts because numerous situations have occurred where officers armed with Tasers have shocked suspects for excessively long periods of time by holding down the trigger for 30 seconds or longer.
Taser has recently announced that it plans to introduce a ‘TaserCam’ that will begin recording video and audio whenever the stun gun is activated. The system will turn off when the Taser itself is turned off.
According to the Arizona Republic, Taser claims that the addition to its product would “help better examine how Tasers are used…illuminate why Tasers are needed – and add another layer of accountability for any officer who would abuse the weapon.”
The cameras will cost about $400 in addition to the $800-$1,000 cost of the stun gun itself. Taser hopes to have the camera ready for sale by March 2006.
Stringer Systems already markets a $200 video-audio recorder for use on its $600 stun gun.
Taser believes the recording equipment would explain the circumstances surrounding controversial cases such as when Miami, Florida, police used a Taser to shock a 6-year-old special needs student last year in an elementary school office.
The boy had cut himself twice with a shard of glass and was threatening again to slash himself or any approaching police officer when the decision was made to employ the stun gun. The police defended its use; the public was outraged. The Taser-Cam would have permitted the episode to be reviewed.
Taser International’s position has never changed with respect to the safety of its stun gun. According to the company’s latest statement, their product is “a more humane and safer alternative” than firearms, batons, or chemical sprays. “Or do citizens want to go back to the cave man days of using batons as clubs?” Taser maintains that it is up to individual police agencies to train officers to use the device properly.
In October, the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) chapters of Nevada and Northern California mounted a two-front assault on Taser International. In Nevada, the ALCU filed a $10 million federal wrongful death and civil rights action arising out of the death of 47-year-old Keith Tucker who died after being shocked multiple times with a Taser during a struggle with the Las Vegas police.
“What happened to Keith Tucker was unfortunately not an isolated incident,” ACLU of Nevada executive Gary Peck said. “We hope this lawsuit and others like it will be a catalyst for change.”
Tucker was one of three people who died in custody after being shocked with a Taser since Las Vegas police began using the devices in April 2003.
In a report released by the ALCU ( Northern California), the safety of the Taser stun gun has been questioned on several levels.
“While the Taser stun gun has the potential to save lives … it poses a serious health risk as long as it remains largely unregulated,” the report released in San Francisco states.
The ACLU surveyed 79 California law enforcement agencies. Of the 56 that use Tasers, 54 provided the ACLU with copies of their training materials and policies regarding stun gun use.
Among the ALCU’s major concerns was that only four departments actually regulate the number of times an officer may shoot a person with a Taser gun. A common factor in several of the death cases is that the victim was shocked more than once.
The ALCU report also included findings that:
Only four departments created their own training guides for the Tasers. The rest relied exclusively on materials produced by Taser International.
Some training manuals provided by Taser were misleading and outdated.
There has been a lack of independent studies on safety issues.
While the ALCU is not advocating a ban on the device, it is recommending that policies be adopted that are specifically aimed at minimizing the possibility that a suspect might die. For example, a 21-year-old man died after Vallejo police shot him with a Taser 17 times in only three minutes.
Indeed, Taser International and its supporters continue to be used by many law enforcement agencies under the premise they are safe, non-lethal weapons that save lives. That position is becoming more and more difficult to maintain, however, given the mounting number of cases in which people have died or suffered serious or life-threatening injuries after being shocked.
In early September a Chicago teenager was caused to go into ventricular fibrillation as a result of being shocked with a Taser. That was significant because Taser International has always maintained that its stun guns cannot cause this usually fatal heart disturbance in which the heart loses the ability to pump blood.
Apparently, the only reason the teenager survived was that he received immediate medical attention. Dr. Wayne H. Franklin, a pediatric electrophysiologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago (and a second doctor), claimed that an electrocardiogram confirmed that the boy did, in fact, suffer fibrillation.
Dr. Franklin stated that this case demonstrated the danger posed by Tasers and why portable defibrillators should be available whenever the stun guns may be used.
Taser International immediately countered the medical opinion of the two doctors with an email from a doctor of their own who stated the conclusion was purely speculative and not backed by scientific evidence.
Regardless of the circumstances, Taser has challenged any suggestion, opinion, or finding in every case where the stun gun has been implicated in a death or serious injury.
Although there had been a surge in Taser use in 2003 and 2004, safety concerns and mounting circumstantial evidence of potentially deadly risks associated with the device have caused sales to plunge in 2005.
Recently, Canadian Police Research Institute stated that Tasers and other “conducted energy devices” are acceptable because the advantages they provide outweigh the risks they pose.
In reaching this conclusion in its report to Canadian police chiefs, however, the Institute was apparently not overly troubled by the enormous number of deaths that have occurred in cases where a Taser has been used.
The specific finding by the Coroner of Cook County, Illinois, that a Taser was, in fact, the cause of death of a man arrested in Chicago also appears to have been ignored in the report as the type of definitive evidence it was seeking to support the claim that the devices can cause death.
That report came at the same time police officers in five states were filing lawsuits against Taser International claiming they suffered serious injuries after being shocked with the device during training classes.
One officer, a Missouri police chief, alleged that he suffered heart damage and two strokes after he volunteered to be shocked with a Taser in April 2004, while hooked up to a cardiac monitor that was supposed to show the Taser was safe. The officer also claimed he suffered hearing and vision loss as well as neurological damage.
Other injuries claimed by the officers involved include spinal fractures, burns, a dislocated shoulder, and soft-tissue damage. A previous lawsuit file in February 2004 alleged a sheriff’s deputy suffered a fractured back in 2002.
The lawsuits challenge Taser International’s central marketing claim that its device is safe and charge the manufacturer of misleading its customers concerning the potential risks posed by the stun guns. Taser is also accused of minimizing and misrepresenting the 2002 fractured back case even after its own doctor found a one-second shock from a Taser caused the injury.
The lawsuits also allege Taser International withheld reports of injuries to at least 12 other police officers and that the company has ignored credible research suggesting the device can be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.
As with all previous allegations against it, Taser International has stated that it intends to vigorously defend the claims. The company has denied any of the 159 deaths which have occurred following the use of a Taser was caused by its product.
Clearly, both sides cannot be right in this matter. As we reported on August 7, Taser International has now issued a training bulletin warning that repeated blasts of the Taser can “impair breathing and respiration.”
According to a posting on Taser’s website, for subjects in a state known as excited delirium, repeated or prolonged stuns with the Taser can contribute to “significant and potentially fatal health risks.”
The three-page bulletin appears to counter instructions in a training manual Taser International issued only last year. It also departs from Taser’s previous dismissals of safety concerns raised by groups such as Amnesty International, which has documented well over 100 U.S. and Canadian deaths of people stunned by Tasers.
The Houston Police Department (HPD), Taser’s biggest U.S. customer, has formed a review committee of police officials and community leaders, including representatives from the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens, to study the use of Tasers in the city of Houston.
The committee started by reviewing the HPD use-of-force policy, training sessions that officers receive, and the first 200 incidents in which Tasers were used in Houston.
Houston will also be involved in a study of Taser use conducted by a national police-research organization according to a report in the Houston Chronicle.
The viability of a non-lethal weapon must be questioned when it is implicated in a number of questionable deaths and charges of abuse. Many critics of the Taser believe that time has already come.
For example, using a number of sources, The Arizona Republic has now compiled a list of 153 cases in the United States and Canada since 1999 where a death followed the use of a Taser stun gun. ( http://www.azcentral.com/specials/taser/#).
“ The Arizona Republic , using computer searches, autopsy reports, police reports, media reports and Taser’s own records, has identified 153 cases in the United States and Canada of death following a police Taser strike since September 1999. In 21 cases, medical examiners said Tasers were a cause, a contributing factor or could not be ruled out in someone’s death. In 31 cases, coroners and other officials reported the stun gun was not a factor. Below is a synopsis of each case. The Republic requested autopsy reports for all of the cases and so far has received 49. ”
From the very beginning, many experts questioned the safety of the 50,000 volt “non-lethal” weapon.
A lack of adequate testing and independent medical evidence supporting the company’s bold marketing claims have been cited by such diverse critics as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a consulting electrical engineer as reasons for removing the stun guns from the market until more extensive testing is done especially with respect to how the device affects pregnant women, people on drugs, or those with heart conditions.
Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police has suggested that further testing is needed. The organization advocates using the device only to subdue violent suspects; not to use it on handcuffed persons unless they are “overly assaultive;” to use it the least number of times; and to seek medical attention for anyone who has been shocked.
In addition, all types of Taser-related lawsuits abound. Personal injury and death claims have been commenced in a number of states. In March of this year, Mesa, Arizona, settled a claim by a 43-year-old man who fell out of a tree after being shocked twice with a Taser by a city police officer. The City paid $2.2 million to the man who became a quadriplegic and another $200,000 to the hospital where he was treated.
A class-action lawsuit was brought in U.S. District Court in Chicago by the city of Dolton, Illinois, on behalf of police departments across the country for being misled about the safety of the Taser and for leaving the police with weapons that are too dangerous to use on the street.
The law firm representing the city of Dolton claimed to have already been retained by other police departments in four states. Paul Geller, an attorney from that firm, states that the law suit would be dropped if Taser would agree to take back the stun guns.
The potential for huge personal injury and death claims have left many municipalities rethinking their purchase of Tasers. Some police forces like those in Birmingham and Lucas County ( Ohio) have either stopped issuing the weapons or have pulled them of the street altogether. Other cities like Chicago have backed off making additional purchases.
The mayor of Birmingham ordered police to stop using Tasers after the death of an inmate who had been shocked with a Taser several hours before he died.
The mayor of Dolton, which suspended their use, calls his city’s purchase of Tasers “a mistake” because “they need far more testing.” He went on to say that losing the money his city paid for the Tasers was far less than the financial risk posed by even one wrongful-death lawsuit.
On January 6, 2005 Taser officials disclosed that federal authorities had launched an inquiry into claims made by the company with respect to its safety studies. The Securities and Exchange Commission was also probing an end-of-year sale which appeared to inflate sales in order to meet annual projections.
In May, The Arizona Republic also reported that “Taser International was deeply involved in a Department of Defense study that company officials touted to police departments and investors as ‘independent’ proof of the stun gun’s safety…This information is surfacing at a time when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona attorney general are pursuing inquiries into safety claims that the Scottsdale firm has made.”
On July 17, the Associated Press reported 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 men had done little more than trespass on private property and confront the officer who had chased him.
The report went on to state: “In the past nine months, at least six people in Texas – including three in Fort Worth – have died after authorities shocked them with a Taser gun.”
On July 27, a prisoner being held in a Queens, New York, police station died after being shocked with a Taser.
Finally, on July 30, for the first time, the Cook County ( Chicago, Illinois) Medical Examiner ruled the February 10 death of an agitated 54-year-old man was caused by being shocked excessively with a Taser.
The finding indicated that the 57-second shock was sufficient, in and of itself, to have killed the man. Why such a long shock (ten times the usual amount) was administered was not immediately explained.
Although the Chicago police force will continue to use the Tasers they already have, an order for additional units was suspended. The report involving the Chicago teenager who suffered ventricular fibrillation following his encounter with a Taser may alter that city’s position regardless of Taser International’s denial of blame.
Taser has vigorously defended its stun guns in every situation where it has been linked to an injury or death. The company continues to maintain that Tasers are non-lethal and that all of the reports regarding deaths and injuries associated with the device are baseless and can be explained away on the basis of other causes.
A recent training bulletin issued by Taser, however, advised police that “repeated, prolonged, and/or continuous exposures to the Taser may cause strong muscle contractions that may impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the probes are placed across the chest or diaphragm.”
The advent of the Taser-Cam, healthy competition from Stringer Systems, better training practices, and more judicious use of the stun guns will have the effect of making the devices less controversial and more likely to be regarded as the non-lethal alternative they were originally designed to be.