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Stun Guns, Medication Can Lead To Death

Deaths raise concerns about supposedly nonlethal weapon

Nov 15, 2004 | AP

Two men who recently died when they were shot with stun guns were taking medication for mental illness, renewing concerns about the supposedly nonlethal weapon.

Ricardo Zaragoza and Gordon Rauch each were shot at least twice with 50,000 volt Tasers after they fought with Sacramento County sheriff's deputies. Zaragoza died last Monday and Rauch last year, but they are among a growing list of suspects taking medication or other drugs whose encounters with the weapons proved fatal.

Experts say the incidents prove the need for studying the effect of Tasers on sensitive people, including those taking prescription or illegal drugs.

"There's really almost no medical research examining this issue," Dr. Kathy Glatter told The Sacramento Bee. She is a University of California, Davis, Medical Center electrophysiologist, a cardiologist who specializes in heart rhythm disorders and sudden death.

"Many of those medicines can cause life-threatening heart rhythms, although it's rare, and they are generally considered safe," Glatter said. "But the combination perhaps in the wrong person could be lethal."

At least 76 people have died in the United States and Canada since 2001 after being shot with Tasers, says Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Colorado. Many were using stimulants, and at least six coroner's reports found Tasers were a contributing factor.

"The more deaths that are associated, the more that someone needs to be questioning and doing a very serious study," Silverstein said.

Officials at Arizona-based Taser International said the weapon has been vindicated.

"Several studies have stated the Taser is most likely not a contributing factor during the custody deaths," said spokesman Steve Tuttle.

But two September studies, one by the U.S. Department of Defense and the other by the British Columbia Office of Police Complaints, said more research and training are needed.

Amnesty International plans to release on Nov. 30 a report on Taser-related deaths in the U.S. The Canadian Police Research Center in Ottawa plans to release the results of its own study next spring.

"It's so important for the police to be tracking Taser use to show why they are using it and document the number of uses and certainly compare information on any tragic circumstances," said Jim Cessford, chairman of the advisory committee to the Canadian center and the chief constable of Delta, a city in British Columbia.

The U.S. National Institute of Justice is paying the International Association of Chiefs of Police to review law enforcement "use of force" policies, including the use of Tasers.

The two Sacramento County deaths won't change policies there, said a department spokesman. The department has purchased at least 584 Tasers since 2001.

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