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Tasers: A shock to the system

Newsday | April 3, 2005

The increased use of Tasers by police spurs questions weighing a purported safety benefit against alleged overuse, including, against children and the elderly, and debate regarding its role in several deaths.

On Jan. 31, Jeffrey Turner, 41, was spotted loitering on the grounds of the art museum here. When Toledo police approached him, he resisted a search. He was taller than 6 feet and more than 200 pounds, so they subdued him with five 50,000-volt electric jolts from a Taser stun-gun and arrested him for trespassing.

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A few hours afterward, Turner became unruly in his cell at the Lucas County jail. So county sheriff's deputies resorted a second time to what they thought was "non-lethal" force - zapping him four more times with a Taser. Turner was subdued again, handcuffed and fitted with leg irons. But this time, he stopped breathing. Attempts to resuscitate him failed. He was pronounced dead in a nearby hospital.

Weeks later, local police officials are still wondering why, and Toledo has become one battleground in a sprawling national debate over scores of deaths following Taser use that has put the weapon's maker, Taser International, on the defensive about safety and left cops across the country uncertain about whether, when and how to deploy stun guns.

"It's a useful tool if it's safe," said Jon Rogers, spokesman for Lucas County Sheriff James Telb, who mothballed all of his department's Tasers after Turner's death. "But it's a legitimate concern to stop and find out how safe these are."

First developed in the 1970s, today's Tasers can be used directly on a suspect's body or transmit their jolt through barb-tipped wires shot at a suspect from more than 20 feet away. Each jolt pulses for at least five seconds, and interrupts brain-to-muscle communication, immobilizing suspects.

With a dramatic rise in popularity since 2000, the company says Tasers are now deployed by 7,000 police departments and 100,000 officers in the United States and abroad, including cops in New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties. Taser says the weapons reduce injuries and deaths for officers and suspects alike, by providing an alternative to guns, batons and wrestling matches.

In reports last year, however, Amnesty International and several newspapers challenged the adequacy of research underlying the claim that the weapon was non-lethal. They have identified nearly 103 cases in the U.S. and Canada since 2001 in which individuals died after being hit with a Taser, including one from Long Island - the death last year of David Glowczenski, a mentally ill man acting out in the street who resisted efforts to calm him and died after Southampton police shocked him with a Taser.

Critics also complain that police faith in the Taser's purported safety has led to its overuse. Tasers have been used in schools and at nursing homes, against children as young as six, senior citizens as old as 75 and pregnant women. They have been used against shoplifters and a salad-bar freeloader. In Orlando, Fla., last week, police Tasered a drug suspect bound to a hospital gurney, because he was resisting insertion of a catheter for a urine sample.

"We have three concerns," said William Schulz, the head of Amnesty's U.S. office. "Tasers are being used too frequently, they are being used against inappropriate subjects, and they may be killing people."

Responding has become almost a full-time job for Taser. Earlier last month, on his third visit to lobby Toledo-area police and politicians since Turner's death, company president and co-founder Tom Smith addressed a gathering of Lucas County chiefs in Oregon, a suburb of Toledo, to discuss Taser policy. He said he's appearing at upward of three public or police forums across the country a week. "I'm willing to talk to anyone and go anywhere," he said.

Wearing a red, white and blue tie with stars, and backed up by an emergency-medicine expert from Minnesota and a former Chicago police superintendent, he offered a simple message: Keep the faith, don't believe the critics, the furor will pass. Tasers, Smith reminded his audience, have never been identified as the direct, primary cause of death by a medical examiner.

"It's similar to what pepper spray went through a few years ago, and batons before that," he told the police. "With the thousands of lives we've saved," he added later, "it would be absurd to take this off the street."

Some departments afterward were supportive and said they had no intention of following the sheriff's lead. "We're not going to ignore our good experience and Taser's good experience because of a few isolated incidents," said Lt. Hank Everitt of Oregon, Ohio's small police department.

But other comments reflected the depth of concern Taser International is up against. "They're very active on the damage control," said Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre, who announced new restrictions on Taser use a few days later. "That's all just business to them. To me, business is the least of my worries. I've got a community that is very worried about Tasers."

Both sides of the story

The mixed reactions reflect the complexity of the scientific, medical and policy issues departments are trying to untangle. In only 17 of the death cases have medical examiners cited the Taser as a contributing factor in a death, or said it could not be ruled out.

In the rest, coroners' findings have not been released, or they have blamed other factors, such as drug use, heart conditions, or a controversial diagnosis called "excited delirium" - a term for an out-of-control psychotic reaction that has frequently been blamed for sudden deaths of drug users, the mentally ill and others who struggle with police. In the Long Island case, Suffolk County's medical examiner won't publicly release a finding, but Glowczenski's family in a lawsuit said the coroner blamed "acute exhaustive mania" - a diagnosis similar to excited delirium. The family blames the Taser, police and medical personnel.

Against its own estimate of more than 100,000 uses of Tasers, the company says the death numbers are minimal. In addition, it says dozens of studies - starting with company-sponsored research on pigs, and also including outside evaluations and government-sponsored studies - have shown the weapon's amperage and voltage are well within human tolerance.

"People are looking for something to blame," said Dr. Jeffrey Ho, a Minnesota emergency-medicine specialist and paid consultant to Taser, at the Toledo police forum. "At the moment it's Taser."

Questions have impact

Amnesty International, however, is not the only group with questions. The Justice Department has commissioned two new studies of Taser's safety. Arizona's attorney general has begun an inquiry into the issue. And the Securities and Exchange Commission has also initiated an inquiry into Taser's safety claims. Wall Street has hammered the company's stock price from a high of $33 to below $11 during the last year, and on Friday the company said its quarterly earnings were well below expectations because adverse publicity slowed sales.

While field use suggests the weapon is usually safe, Taser critics say they are less confident that it is safe for particularly vulnerable groups - such as people with existing heart conditions, drug users or pregnant women. And independent experts say that no studies have covered all the bases.

"There is not a comprehensive, broad-ranging, scientifically peer-reviewed study that looks at all of the issues," said Tom Barrett, a former Coast Guard admiral and vice president at the Potomac Institute, a Capitol-area think tank that completed a report last week on stun guns. "They're relatively safe, but there's some gaps in the science that need closure."

Across the country, the Taser debate has provoked a range of reactions from police departments caught in the crossfire. In Fort Wayne, Ind., Police Chief Russell York called off a planned purchase of 83 Tasers with an $86,000 federal block grant because of safety concerns.

And in Chicago, where police deployed 200 Tasers last year, Superintendent Philip Cline deferred issuing an additional 100 after two incidents in February. In one, a 14-year-old boy who had assaulted employees at his youth home went into cardiac arrest after he was shot with a Taser by police. The boy survived, but three days later a man died after a Taser was used in a confrontation with police.

"These two incidents prompted everyone to ask questions about the weapons," said Chicago Police spokesman Dave Bayless. "They're good questions, and we're asking them as well."

A valuable tool

But other departments have concluded that Tasers are too valuable to give up. In Akron, Ohio, for example, the medical examiner ruled that a Taser was a contributing factor in the January death of a mentally deranged man on drugs who had broken into a house.

Chief Michael Matulavich believes the local coroner was wrong, but even if there is some danger to people high on drugs, he said, that is their responsibility - not the fault of police or Tasers. "We've got a duty and obligation to protect the officers," he said. "To say we're not going to use Tasers, it puts the officers in a more vulnerable position."

For still others, the question is not whether to use Tasers, but how and when to use them.

Practices vary widely across the country. Some departments have distributed Tasers to all their officers. Others - including police in New York City, and Nassau and Suffolk counties - have limited them to supervisors and emergency response units. Some categorize them as a less severe use of force than batons, others as more severe. No national standards exist, and many chiefs have asked for advice from the International Association of Police Chiefs, which is expected to issue a report in April.

Looking for middle ground

In the meantime, chiefs are looking for a middle ground. Toledo's Navarre is keeping his 475 Tasers on the street, but has directed that they can't be used on anyone who is handcuffed, pregnant, older than 70 or younger than 13, or on people who merely refuse verbal commands. Although Taser says the weapon has no cumulative effect, Navarre's new policy also discourages jolting a person more than four times.

And in Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff John Rutherford has delayed deployment of 1,800 Tasers purchased for $1.8 million amid bad publicity about several cases in South Florida in which Tasers were used in schools, and community concern about a Jacksonville incident in which a 13-year-old, 65-pound girl arrested after striking her mother was zapped while handcuffed in a police car to calm her down.

He's still a big believer in Tasers, and wants to make sure they aren't discredited in Jacksonville. So he's trying to first organize the city's medical, emergency and forensic communities for an on-scene medical presence any time Tasers are used, and a consensus on how to handle people exhibiting signs of "excited delirium."

"We've got to get the medical people on board to study the problem of sudden custody death," Rutherford said. "If we had a death [after Taser use] in Duval County right now, the community could be so enraged that we could lose the use of a very good tool."

Deaths, questionable use part of Taser history

Amnesty International fanned a simmering national controversy regarding Tasers late last year when it reported that more than 70 people had died since 2001 after being jolted, and said the stun gun was being overused. Here are some recent incidents involving Tasers:

Oct. 15, 2004. A police officer in Rock Hill, S.C., uses a Taser on Margaret Kimbrell, 75, a great-grandmother with no criminal record, when Kimbrell repeatedly refuses to leave an assisted living facility after a dispute about whether she is allowed to visit a friend there.

Oct. 20. Miami-Dade County police use a Taser on a 6-year-old who has been acting up in a school office. Police say the child had cut himself twice with a glass shard and was threatening to cut himself further. He has attention deficit disorder, according to his mother.

Jan. 5, 2005. Dennis Hyde, confronted by police after he broke into a house in Akron, Ohio, dies after he is Tased. Coroner rules that bleeding from a cut suffered during the break-in, mental illness, methamphetamine use and the Taser shock contributed to the death.

Feb. 7. Police in Jacksonville, Fla., use two Taser jolts to get a 13-year-old girl handcuffed in the back of a police car to calm down. Arrested for hitting her mother, she was not prosecuted.

Feb. 7-10. In Chicago, a 14-year-old boy suffers cardiac arrest after being Tased during an altercation with police at a youth home. He recovers, but three days later Ronald Hasse, 54, dies after he is Tased by police. Medical examiner has still not reported on Hasse's death.

Feb. 18. Police in Harris County, Texas, use a Taser twice on Joel Casey, 52, during a struggle while they are trying to serve a mental-health commitment warrant on him. He dies.

Feb. 19. Police in Salinas, Calif., use a Taser multiple times to subdue Robert Heston, 40, after Heston's father called and said his son was hurting him. Heston stops breathing, is revived, but dies at a hospital the next day.

Feb. 27. Police in Aurora, Colo., use a Taser on Danon Gale, 29, at a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant after the manager complains that he refused to show proof that he paid to use the salad bar, and Gale refuses a police request to step outside. Gale's two kids and scores of patrons watch as he is zapped twice.

March 1. A police officer in Roseville, Minn., uses a Taser on a 15-year-old female student at Roseville Area High School. The girl had been suspended, then returned to school and became aggressive with the officer.

March 5. Orlando, Fla., police arrest Antonio Wheeler, 18, for possession of cocaine with intent to sell, take him to a hospital, strap him to a gurney, and attempt to insert a catheter to get a urine sample. Wheeler resists and is Tased twice. He agrees to urinate.

Taser technology

Like the phasers made famous in "Star Trek,'' stun gun devices such as the Taser are designed to temporarily subdue a person without doing long-term damage. Tasers disrupt the body's communication system through the use of a high-voltage electrical charge.

TASERS VS. CONVENTIONAL STUN GUNS

One advantage of Tasers is that they can be used as conventional stun guns. A problem, however, is that the electrode wires and gas cartridge must be reloaded each time the user fires.

Conventional stun guns are portable and maintain a continuous charge.

However, they must be used within striking distance of an attacker.

How Tasers work

The Taser causes every muscle in a victim's body to contract at the same time, temporarily incapacitating him or her.

Most Tasers consist of (1) trigger, (2) microprocessor, (3) air cartridge, (4) laser sight, (5) conductive wires and (6) charged electrodes.

o IN TASERS, the two charged electrodes are not permanently joined to the housing; they are positioned at the ends of conductive wires, attached to the gun's electrical circuit.

o PULLING THE TRIGGER opens a compressed gas cartridge inside the gun.

o EXPANDING GAS builds pressure behind the electrodes, launching them through the air. The attached

wires trail behind.

o ELECTRIC CURRENT travels through the wires and, upon impact, into the attacker.

20 feet Maxium range of Taser when used with attached conductive wires.

17 Number of times a Taser has been listed as a factor in a victim's death.

100 People reportedly to have died after being struck by Tasers.

Effectiveness

Stun-gun effectiveness varies depending on the model of the gun, the attacker's size and the attacker's determination. But most models seem to follow this order.

o HALF-SECOND: Painful jolt startles the attacker.

o ONE TO TWO SECONDS: Attacker experiences muscle spasms and becomes dazed.

o THREE SECONDS OR MORE: Attacker becomes unbalanced and disoriented and may lose muscle control.

…Dangers

Taser International is correct when it says its product has never caused a death. However, some side effects are potentially lethal.

o BLOOD PRESSURE ELEVATION

o ELEVATED HEART RATE

o IRREGULAR HEART RHYTHM: What cardiologists call ventricular fibrillation

SOURCES: HOW STUFF WORKS, CBS NEWS

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