Jarring death rate fuels flap over police, Tasers
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Jarring death rate fuels flap over police, Tasers

Palm Beach Post | January 2, 2005

Despite 17 Florida fatalities since 2000, officers back their use. Shouting gibberish and flailing furiously in a hotel lobby, Gordon Randall Jones went down after police shot him in the back with a Taser. He was shot about a dozen more times before police subdued him enough to load him into an ambulance, where he died on the way to the hospital.

Jones' death in 2002 was one of at least 17 Taser-related deaths in Florida since 2000, the most in the nation, according to published reports.

In the wake of three Florida deaths following Taser hits last month, including one in Delray Beach less than two weeks ago, law-enforcement officials continue to praise the weapons while human-rights advocates call for a moratorium on their use.

Controversy over Tasers, which are intended to disable but not harm violent subjects, is unlikely to be easily or quickly resolved. It includes questions of police safety and use of force as well as slippery scientific hypotheses.

The issue is further complicated because many of the weapon's most concerned critics agree that the Taser is a valuable tool that more often spares distraught, psychotic or drug-influenced people from being hit with a baton or pepper-sprayed or shot.

Florida was among the first states to embrace Tasers. More than 5,000 agencies in the United States use the weapons.

"We are big believers in it," West Palm Beach police training Sgt. Bill Sandman said. "Is it perfect? No. But there are so many statistics that show that departments that use it have fewer injuries to the suspect and the officer alike.

"Now when someone dies, that's a hard thing to explain, isn't it?"

Sandman said he would prefer being shocked by a Taser to taking pepper spray to the face. Painful for several seconds, a Taser shot leaves only two tiny red marks on the skin, while the effects of the spray might be felt 45 minutes.

The benefit of Tasers, police say, is that it stops bad situations from getting worse — a drunk grabbing a gun, a psychotic person committing suicide, a fight between officers and a suspect.

Tasers use compressed nitrogen to project two small fishhook-like probes up to 21 feet. After the wires make contact with skin or clothing, the person is shocked with 50,000 volts of electricity.

"It takes the fight out of you," Sandman said, quoting one of his officers who had taken a Taser jolt in training.

But law-enforcement officers commonly use Tasers to subdue people who do not pose a serious or immediate threat, according to a report from Amnesty International that called for the moratorium.

The report claims that analysis of the weapon's effect on the elderly, drug addicts or people with heart conditions has not been adequate.

"That gap in the knowledge about how a Taser works on a range of individuals is precisely the problem," Amnesty International spokesman Alistair Hodgett said. "Any electrical item you pick up at your local store has undergone more testing than Taser."

Police respond to the call for a moratorium by citing incidents in which Tasers have kept them at a safe distance from aggressive, suicidal or armed suspects.

West Palm Beach police officers used it recently on an HIV-positive man who was threatening to cut himself.

Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies used it to disable a suspect in a murder case. He was sitting in the back seat of a car with a gun on the seat next to him as officers approached.

"A deputy came through an open window, saw him and saw the gun in the seat. He hit him with the Taser, and that was it. That was the end of it," said Lt. Michael Wallace, commander of the sheriff's Emergency Response Team.

Shortly after the weapon was introduced to the Delray Beach Police Department in 2002, a 21-year-old woman apparently strung out on drugs pointed a foot-long knife at her stomach while she screamed at police that she wanted to die. Officer Steve Hynes brought her under control with a Taser shot, referring to it as a "textbook" use of the weapon.

Hynes was one of two officers involved in another Taser incident last month that resulted in the death of Timothy Bolander, 31, and state law-enforcement officials are investigating.

Bolander, who had a history of drug abuse and mental problems, was banging his head against a metal fence post outside his estranged wife's home when police arrived after 3 a.m. on Dec. 23. He was "agitated and combative," according to police, and struggled with officers before he was shocked twice with a Taser.

The officers were walking him to a patrol car when he collapsed.

Delray Beach police say they are confident the two Taser hits did not cause Bolander's death. Investigators are awaiting an autopsy report, but previous cases indicate that questions will continue to linger.

Take the August death of William Teasley in South Carolina, one of five cited by Amnesty International when it called for the moratorium.

Teasley, who was shocked three times, is one of more than 70 people to die after being stunned by Tasers since the weapon was adopted by law-enforcement agencies in 1999, Amnesty International reported.

Anderson County Deputy Coroner Charlie Boseman called the death a homicide and cited the Taser hits as a "contributing factor," which raised an outcry from critics of the weapon.

It also elicited protests from a representative of Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based manufacturer of the weapon. Boseman said the representative asked him to strike reference to the company's product from his report and not to release it to the media.

Boseman did not comply, but he said, "We're not saying Taser caused his death."

Teasley had an enlarged heart, had been in an accident that had left him with a head injury and had other health problems, including alcohol use.

What combination of factors caused his heart to stop is impossible to determine, Boseman said, but the fact that "someone did something to him" also is impossible to ignore.

Questions about the heart

Scientists, including pathologists who have conducted autopsies on people who died after being hit with Tasers, say determining the cause of cardiac arrest is frequently elusive.

Critics of Tasers have said the shocks can interrupt the electrical rhythm of the heart, causing fatal ventricular fibrillation. But pathologists say ventricular fibrillation can be detected only through tests on a beating heart, not on one that has stopped.

In 1970, a Consumer Product Safety study on an earlier dart-throwing stun gun concluded that the device could pose risks to people sensitive to electric shock, such as the elderly or people with heart problems.

Studies since the mid-1980s also have questioned the effects of shocking devices on the heart.

The results of an ongoing Defense Department study of the devices have not been released. But its conclusions already have become fodder for controversy. The manufacturer claims the research found the devices to pose no danger, but an article in The New York Times quoted researchers who cited potential risks of disrupting heart rhythm and of seizures, "particularly in susceptible populations."

Last year, the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice awarded nearly $500,000 for a study on how electrical currents move through the body, particularly the effects of "electro-muscular disruption devices" on internal organs, including the heart. The project began in August and is set to conclude in July 2006.

Adding to questions about the effects of Tasers on the heart are questions about its effects on people most likely to require restraint — those suffering from mental turmoil, psychosis or drug abuse.

"The brain controls everything about your body," Boseman said, noting that emotionally agitated people might be more susceptible to cardiac arrest.

Still, the South Carolina coroner says the weapon should continue to be available to law-enforcement officers.

"I don't believe they should even think of taking them off the market," Bozeman said. "There are a lot of violent people out there."

Dr. George Kirkham, a former police officer, Florida State University criminology professor and expert witness in cases involving in-custody deaths, is another critic who concedes that Tasers can be a valuable tool.

"When I see officers walking around with it on their hips, I'm glad to see it," he said. "The problem we're seeing is, it's being improperly used."

He compares the Taser to the choke hold, another controversial means of control that has been linked to in-custody deaths and which he says has often been used too quickly rather than as a last resort.

In addition, Kirkham said, many officers using Tasers have not been adequately trained in dealing with mentally disturbed or drug-addled subjects.

He points to the case involving Jones, who died after being shocked in the Orlando hotel lobby. Kirkham said Jones became increasingly confused, incapacitated and unable to follow repeated orders from sheriff's deputies as they continued to shock him.

Kirkham would like to see Taser training standardized.

"Most officers are good people, doing hard jobs that get harder all the time," he said. "But there are some people out there who shouldn't be carrying ballpoint pens."

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jim Green of West Palm Beach said officers who overuse Tasers do so in part because the weapon's potential for harm has been "underrepresented or misrepresented by the manufacturer."

Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, issued a statement saying that the company stands by the safety of its product and that "it is inappropriate to jump to conclusions on the causes of these deaths."

In any case, Green would like each law-enforcement agency to place Taser use higher on its "ladder of force" after pepper spray, and in the same category as batons. Delray Beach, for instance, categorizes Tasers as "ordinary force," akin to pepper spray.

Sandman, who has worked with West Palm Beach police since 1980, said use of the baton is less preferable because it can cause permanent injury and requires officers to get close enough to strike.

"It dates back to 150, maybe 200 years of policing," he said. "If you think about it, isn't that kind of archaic that you are using clubs basically to control people? We're not there to kill people or to damage them; we are there to control people and to make peace."

 

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