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Taser Manufacturer Warns of Safety Risks

Houston Police Department forms a committee to look into the stun guns' use locally

Aug 5, 2005 | St. Petersburg Times

Taser International, maker of the controversial stun guns used by thousands of law enforcement agencies, including Houston's, has issued a training bulletin warning that repeated blasts of the Taser can "impair breathing and respiration."

For subjects in a state known as excited delirium, repeated or prolonged stuns with the Taser can contribute to "significant and potentially fatal health risks," says a recent posting on Taser International's Web site.

The three-page bulletin appears to counter instructions in a training manual Taser International issued last year.

It also departs from the manufacturer's previous dismissals of safety concerns raised by groups such as Amnesty International, which has documented 129 U.S. and Canadian deaths of people stunned by Tasers.

Passing around the blame

Most deaths later were attributed to drugs, pre-existing heart problems and excited delirium, a psychotic and typically drug-induced state in which the heart is susceptible to cardiac arrest.

But last month, a medical examiner in Chicago became the first in the United States to attribute a criminal suspect's death to a Taser. The suspect had methamphetamine in his system when the officer stunned him, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser, wrote in an e-mail this week that the company is simply reminding officers to use "only the necessary amount of force" when stunning suspects.

The policy on the use of force at the Houston Police Department, the nation's largest buyer of Tasers, "has always stated very clearly that only minimum force absolutely necessary in order to bring an individual under control" is to be used, Lt. Robert Manzo said Thursday.

"That applies to Tasers as well," Manzo said. "We only use repeated blasts when absolutely necessary. That only happens in a small number of cases."

Houston review

HPD has formed a review committee of police officials and community leaders, including representatives from the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens, to study the use of Tasers locally.

Committee members have reviewed the HPD use-of-force policy, participated in the training sessions that officers receive and this week began reviewing the first 200 incidents in which Tasers have been used.

The committee will compile a report and make recommendations to Chief Harold Hurtt in September.

Also, Houston will be involved in a study of Taser use conducted by a national police-research organization.

Watching their aim

In Florida, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department advises its deputies to try not to use Tasers on subjects who are very young or very old. Pinellas deputies are not to use Tasers on pregnant women.

The same policy applies at HPD, Manzo said. In addition, HPD officers are told not to use a Taser on anyone they know to be physically handicapped or in poor health, and to seek immediate medical attention for anyone they stun.

Tampa police Cpl. Tommy Downes, a longtime sniper-team member, said any use of force hand-to-hand, stunning or pepper spray is more of a health risk for subjects high on drugs or in some other psychotic state.

"Their pain receptors aren't working, they're overheated, they're superstrong," Downes said. "Yet if you have someone who's tearing up a place or attacking people and exhibiting all the hallmarks of excited delirium, you have to do something."

Manzo agreed. "The bottom line is, this (the Taser) is less dangerous, potentially less lethal than other methods," he said.

A Taser looks and fires like a gun. But instead of bullets, it shoots two dart-like probes that deliver about 50,000 volts of electricity, according to Taser International.

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