July 26, 2009

Tasers and a propensity for abuse

There has been much in the news over the past few years regarding Taser use and misuse by law enforcement. Several have died after being “tazed” when officers, supposedly following policy, utilized the device as a deterrent to violence. Taking a serious look at this situation, two questions come to mind… with each of those raising ancillary questions.

Regarding the deaths, I have to wonder if this is a dissonant correlation/causation phenomenon, or if receiving a huge electrical shock actually precipitated the death of a person. And then we would need to know why the shock killed one and not another.

After regular reading of news stories and seeing the seemingly large number of situations in which a individual is subjected to Taser shock, I would like to know if perhaps the weapon is being correctly utilized by law enforcement, or are cops “tazing” subjects unnecessarily, and if so, why?

There is some research data available (albeit not much), and some ongoing research into the potential for lethal outcome with Taser shock. Some critics argue that the device had not been studied sufficiently prior to being placed into general use, a claim which the Arizona based manufacturer disputes. The manufacturer, unsurprisingly, defends the device’s effectiveness and actually states that it saves lives. I’ll leave it to you, my gentle readers, to Google for that little ditty. Discussion from the manufacture point of view and others may be found HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Taser’s website has a page on research, with a slant of course, upon which you will find a photo of a smiling dude wearing scrubs and lab coat, and with stethoscope slung over his neck. He certainly looks like a doctor… but he isn’t at all identified. The photo lends some illusionary credibility to the research aspect from the company point of view, I guess.

Now the overuse/misuse question

You be the judge. A cursory review of the web brought several quick results using keywords “Taser” and “misuse.” I've heard of others but didn't take the time to dig more than this.

November of 2008 - - A Pinellas County, Florida jailer used a Taser to awaken a prisoner. The jailer received a 15 day suspension.

Earlier this year - - North Wales police tazed an 89 year old man who was threatening suicide. This same article references use of the Taser on a 14 year old child, and the same department has tazed dogs, sheep and cattle.

June of this year - - A Travis County Constable used a Taser to subdue an angry 72 year old woman because she wouldn’t sign the speeding citation he had written.

Just a couple days ago - - Boise, Idaho, police officers were disciplined by their department for shoving a Taser into a suspect’s butt crack, and firing. This entire episode is recorded on video and audio tape.

The jury is still out

There is no verifiable, statistical data indicating how many times Tasers have been used by law enforcement to subdue citizens, so there is no means of knowing just what percentage of uses are done according manufacturer recommendation and/or departmental policy. Neither is there any way of knowing how many Taser incidents are vindictive and/or coercive and/or just for the convenience of the officer. How many times has the device been used in anger or frustration, or simply for expediency?

If Tasers were not available, would the Texas constable have used some other form of force to subdue the little old lady, or would he have done what the law requires, handcuff and arrest her, and simply take her to jail?

Would the North Wales police have restrained the old geezer in some less painful and dangerous way, and would Sparky the sheep have been wrangled in a more reasonable fashion?

We have seen and heard reports of police abuse of authority and brutality over the years. Much of this is documented, and we fret about every new report. We know it happens, but has the availability of the Taser made it simpler for cops already inclined to be abusive to misuse that authority?

One thing is certain. There is insufficient data to make any valid assessment of these questions, so we need serious research efforts. If the device is determined to be effective and safe, then we must insist on better training and greater oversight of officers entrusted with that kind of potential.

We can’t continue to tolerate law enforcement shoving 50,000 volts up some dude’s chute just because the cop loses his cool



A reader has provided this link to an article on the Amnesty International website, detailing the number of U.S. deaths folowing Taser shock. The report, of course cannot determine causation, but the anecdotal evidence lends strong suspicion. From the article:

Amnesty International has said that industry claims that Taser stun guns are safe and non-lethal do not stand up to scrutiny. The organization called on governments to limit their deployment to life-threatening situations or to suspend their use.

The call came as the organization released one of the most detailed reports to date on the safety of the stun gun. The report "USA: Less than lethal?" is being published as the number of people who died after being struck by Tasers in the USA reached 334 between 2001 and August 2008.

So, in my mind at least, since we failed to study the device prior to its deployment, the Taser should be shelved until such time as we can collect the data, and such data indicates it is safe for use. The research should not be entrusted to the manufacturer of the device.

Then we should spend time offering training to those who will be entrusted with the device. They need to understand mor than just how to use it. They should understand that there are time when it should not be used, and be aware of the potential consequenses.


Terrant said...

I have not been able to find the article again because Indy Star removes them after a couple of week. A couple years ago, the cops here tazered a man who had stopped in a parking lot because he was having a diabetic shock. The cops claimed that they thought he was drunk and unruly. The problem with the cops story is that his sister had made a 911 call alerting them that he was there (he was on the phone with her when it started).

Anonymous said...

In my humble opinion, the use of the tazer should immediately be stopped until such time that all the questions about the safety of the damn supercharged cattle prod can be answered scientifically by an agency separate from government or manufacturer of the damn things.

Andrew said...

I agree that there are substantial issues around taser use, and that they should be used very rarely. I think it would be extremely unwise to eliminate them from the law enforcement toolset.

In many cases when tasers are being used, the previous approach would have been a police baton. From what I've read, even from a worst-case perspective, tasers are much safer than being hit in the head until you stop resisting.

The issues of police abuse of tasers would exist with or without tasers. The issue isn't the tool, the issue is the police abuse. We really need to find a way to revert the mentality of our nation's police departments to "keeping the peace," instead of "enforcing the law."

Mule Breath said...

Sorry Andrew, but I can't buy your first point. No such piece of equipment should be placed into general use prior to thorough study, verification of safety and efficacy.

Your second point is reasonable. I agree that a "cop mentality" exists in some officers, and these need adjustment... or those individuals need to find some other employment.

Before I get blasted by law enforcement and the defenders of same, I will stipulate that abuse of authority is perpetrated by a relative few bad apples. However, I think I am not being unreasonable when I theorize that the ready availability of the Taser tends to tip more officers toward abuse than if the Taser were not in the picture.

In other words, I'm inclined toward Jeg's position.

Rogue Medic said...

I have written about this before. There are a couple of articles in the current Academic Emergency Medicine that address this and I am going to write more about this.

TASER or Glock - Which treatment do you choose?

TASER or Glock, addendum

Are they abused by some? Absolutely. Everything with the potential for abuse will be abused. That is not a reason to ban the abused item, but to address the abusive behavior. It does not matter if it is alcohol, medications (Dr. Conrad Murray), drugs of abuse, firearms, vehicles, . . . . The misbehavior is what should be addressed. From what I can see, there is not evidence that TASERs, when used appropriately, increase the rate of death in custody.

Death in custody is an important issue, that needs to be addressed, but TASERs do not seem to make things worse.

Anonymous said...

". . .as the number of people who died after being struck by Tasers in the USA reached 334 between 2001 and August 2008."

I submit that the improper use of the taser is connected to its ease of use - as the operator has little physical and mental information about what happens to the victim - you just aim, press a button and the target (young or old, large or small) falls down and maybe flops around a bit.

In the old days, swinging a billy club gave the operator ample feed-back (usually negative) - vivid sounds: clunk, owww!; visual data: clunk, clunk - nice bright red splatters. The operator of the billy club could readily see, hear, and feel the results as he used it.

Same thing for the use of the Glock - outstanding audible: BOOM! great visual - victim falls down and nice bright red splatters, splashes, and puddles appear; and like the billy club, when you pop one off from a Glock, there's the physical feed-back of recoil which is a good reminder you've just done something serious.

Negative feed-back from using a taser is basically non-existent which eliminates most all worry/concern about any connection between its use and bad results. The device is promoted as being "safe" and "non-lethal." This has shown to be less than factual and is the reason I think its use as a safe, non-lethal method of control should be terminated. If taser use will continue to produce lethal results, addressing the abusive behavior by its operators will never solve the problem.

Perhaps the taser should be improved to the point that it would serve as a substitute for and used only in situations requiring immediate lethal force - which would give mostly non-lethal results, much more satisfactory solution than what we have now.

Rogue Medic said...


". . .as the number of people who died after being struck by Tasers in the USA reached 334 between 2001 and August 2008."

You appear to be jumping to the conclusion that there is some sort of cause and effect here. If the TASER is causing the deaths, what is causing all of these other in custody deaths? I do not see that there is evidence to support the connection.

Since a large percent of the cases of in custody deaths involve agitation, maybe the TASER is actually preventing the kind of exertion that leads to death. It may be decreasing the incidence of in custody deaths.

US DOJ In Custody Deaths 2003 - 2006

2003 - 2006 Total


2003 2004 2005 2006

627 670 679 710

Each year there are about twice as many in custody deaths as the 2001 - August 2008 number of deaths that occurred after TASER use.

Negative feed-back from using a taser is basically non-existent

Many police organizations require their officers to have the TASER used on them before being authorized to use the TASER. Obviously, such a policy probably does not exist anywhere for clubs or guns.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I failed to be clear. I did not intend to address "in custody deaths," just the deaths that happened after being hit with a taser.

"Negative feed-back from using a taser is basically non-existent"

I mean any feed-back from the actual discharge of a taser - there is no more feed-back than you get from pushing a key on your computer keyboard - where there is a plenitude of physical feed-back in the use of the other two weapons mentioned.

"You appear to be jumping to the conclusion that there is some sort of cause and effect here."

Well of course I see cause and effect. As I understand the quote, ". . . the number of people who died after being struck by Tasers in the USA reached 334 between 2001 and August 2008," it means 334 people died after they were tasered. Pretty direct cause and effect, to me. Do you understand it to mean something else? I have no knowledge about how much time passed between the tasering and death.
Again I apologize - we seem to be talking about different issues.

Rogue Medic said...


We are not talking about different issues. Not even a little bit different.

While in custody some people die. From 2003 to 2006, the number was 2,686. Yet the total number of people who have died in custody after the TASER was used on them is 334 between 2001 and August 2008.

Where is the evidence to show that this number is at all out of line as a percentage of in custody deaths?

Is it higher?

Is it the same?

Is it lower?

Maybe the TASER actually prevents death.

So far, there is no evidence of any cause and effect relationship between TASER use and death.

Sorry, I failed to be clear. I did not intend to address "in custody deaths," just the deaths that happened after being hit with a taser.

You act as if there is a connection between the TASER use and the deaths. You do not provide anything to support that conclusion.

The number of in custody deaths gives you an idea of how many people die under similar circumstances, but without having been on the receiving end of a TASER. The deaths after use of a TASER are dwarfed by overall in custody deaths. They do not appear to occur at a greater rate than the rest of in custody deaths.

If I use some alternative medicine treatment, then feel better, is that evidence that alternative medicine works?

Anonymous said...

"You act as if there is a connection between the TASER use and the deaths. You do not provide anything to support that conclusion."

The only support I have is the quote from Amnesty International and I have no way to verify that the data is factual. As you see no connection between being tasered and the 334 deaths, your data must be far more complete than mine.

Thanks for your responses.

Mule Breath said...

Remember something you've said in the past Rogue. Lack of data does not necessarily mean a theory is not correct. It could mean that there has been no data... or insufficient data collected to make a judgment.

As stated before; the Taser is far too easy to whip out and shoot with too little justifiable cause, and there is too little evidence that other means could not have been as effective in solving the immediate problem.

The Taser should be shelved until such time as an independent study (1) proves sufficient benefit, and (2) disproves the safety concerns.