Police back Tasers despite deaths
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Man Dies After Police Use Stun Gun on Him

Associated Press | November 5 2004

FORT WORTH, Texas -- A man suspected of trying to illegally hook up electrical service died after police shocked him with a stun gun when he was found hiding at an apartment complex, authorities said.

Robert Guerrero, 21, was pronounced dead Tuesday at John Peter Smith Hospital where he was taken after officers subdued him with a Taser stun gun and he stopped breathing, police said.

Officers were called to the complex where residents said someone was illegally hooking up electrical service at a unit, police Lt. Abdul Pridgen said.

When they arrived, Guerrero hid in a closet and refused to come out, Pridgen said. Officers shot Guerrero with a Taser stun gun after asking him twice to come out. Pridgen said the man was then handcuffed but stopped breathing shortly thereafter.

"They had dealt with him before and had a history with him," Pridgen said. "They believed he might have had a weapon."

The stun guns, used primarily by police, temporarily incapacitate people by sending electrical charges through their bodies.

While some deaths have been linked to their use, officials of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International have defended their product, now used by thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Police back Tasers despite deaths

After the latest fatality, HPD and others call stun guns safer options

Houston Chronicle | November 5, 2004

The death of a man in Fort Worth after being shot with an electrified dart this week has recharged debate about the safety of the increasingly popular stun guns.

Touted as a life-saving alternative to deadly force, Tasers are used by every major law-enforcement department in Harris County and 300 across Texas.

The sudden death of 21-year-old Robert Guerrero on Tuesday is the state's third that occurred in police custody after the use of a stun gun, based on reports from the manufacturer and the media.

The incident did not shake Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt's conviction that his pending order for $4.7 million in Tasers will help save lives, not end them.

"Tasers give officers another option besides their handguns when they are confronted by someone with a weapon other than a gun or by someone who is mentally ill," he said.

Houston's City Council approved buying 3,600 Tasers this week.

Guerrero's death occurred after Fort Worth police officers responded to a tip that someone was illegally running electrical lines into an apartment. They followed the lines, discovered Guerrero hiding in a closet and threatened to stun him if he didn't come out. Shortly after being zapped with 50,000 volts, Guerrero stopped breathing and died, said Fort Worth Police Department spokesman Lt. Abdul Pridgen.

It was the third recent death in Texas of someone who had been stunned by a Taser.

Guerrero and a 22-year-old from Johnson County who died in September were both described as having used drugs before their deaths, based on media reports. But no autopsy report in Guerrero's case was available Thursday to confirm that. In the third Texas fatality, a 51-year-old Amarillo man with heart disease suffered a heart attack after being stunned in September 2003.

TASER International defended the safety of its product in e-mail to the Houston Chronicle on Thursday and said it was prepared to assist in the ongoing review of Guerrero's death.

"Until all the facts surrounding this tragic incident are known, it is inappropriate to jump to conclusions on a cause of death," according to the company's statement.

"What we do know is that Taser technology saves lives every day, and that the circumstances surrounding this incident appear to be consistent with other in-custody death incidents where a Taser device was not used," the statement said.

Few fatal cases found

Nationally, more than 70 similar fatal incidents have been reported, said Ed Jackson, a spokesman for Amnesty International USA.

The human rights group has called for a moratorium and independent research on Tasers.

However, a 2004 Arizona Republic review of autopsy reports for people who died nationwide after being stunned showed that medical examiners mentioned Tasers as a factor in only five deaths.

TASER International, an Arizona-based company, is recording record sales and touts its product as saving at least 600 lives, based on reports received by the company from police officers who have used it.

Tasers are unregulated by the federal government.

They are available for sale both to police and civilians in almost every state, based on the company's most recent annual report.

Popular device in local area

HPD is ordering Tasers, as have the Harris County Sheriff's Department and the Pasadena Police Department.

Baytown police got them in 2000.

A few Houston police officers have used a limited number of older stun guns for several years, but the order approved this week will make new models available to all patrol officers. Police in Miami, Seattle and Phoenix all have claimed to have seen shooting incidents drop dramatically after deploying Tasers.

Local departments hope the availability of stun guns will reduce injuries and deaths to officers and citizens.

Annually, about 30 civilians are shot each year in Harris County, based on statistics provided by the Harris County District Attorney's Office.

There have been 18 shootings so far in 2004.

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has called upon Tasers to be used only as a last resort to avoid lethal force, said Randall Kallinen, the chapter's president.

Since 1999, three officers have been prosecuted by the Harris County District Attorney's Office in two incidents involving alleged misuse of stun guns, but none was convicted.

Two HPD officers were fired in a 1996 incident involving the misuse of an older model of Taser, said Assistant District Attorney Tommy LaFon, who works in the Harris County District Attorney's public-accountability division.

Officer acquitted

In a more recent case, a Baytown officer was acquitted of charges he used a stun gun on a 59-year-old woman who was trying to collect mail for a relative in July 2003. The woman was knocking on the door with a brick and turned toward the officer with the brick in her hand when he confronted her.

In the Baytown case, the officer's supervisor defended his use of force at trial, and the officer was not disciplined.

But Lafon, the prosecutor, continues to disagree that the force used by the officer was appropriate.

D. Matthew Freeman, a Houston attorney, is representing the woman and two others stunned by Baytown officers in three civil suits pending in federal court.

Freeman says he believes Tasers are a valuable tool but can be easily misused.

Saving 'several lives'

Baytown's Lt. David Alford, who oversees internal affairs, said he believes use of force in all three cases was justified because of the erratic and violent behavior exhibited by the people who were stunned.

Alford said he's aware of several situations in which he believes that Tasers saved lives in Baytown.

"It has saved several lives," he said. "Officer injuries are down, injuries to suspects are down. It's an awesome tool."



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911:  The Road to Tyranny