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Taser Safety Record Under Fire

Jul 19, 2004 | Arizona Republic

Thousands of police departments, including major law enforcement agencies in Tucson and Phoenix, buy Tasers on a claim that the electric stun guns will instantly take down suspects without inflicting lasting harm.

That assertion has generated record sales for Scottsdale's Taser International Inc., which markets its guns as alternatives to deadly force and says its goal is to arm every police officer in America.

But an Arizona Republic investigation reveals that Taser's claims are based on autopsy reports the company never possessed.

For years, Taser officials cited these reports as proof that the stun guns never caused "injury or death to another human being." Now, officials acknowledge they never had those autopsy reports and didn't start collecting them until April.

The Republic's review of autopsies and interviews with medical examiners found Tasers have been linked to at least five deaths.

Medical examiners in three cases involving suspects who died in police custody cited Tasers as a cause or a factor in the deaths. In two other cases, Tasers could not be ruled out as a cause of death.

These deaths raise questions about a weapon police routinely use on drunks, shoplifters, mentally ill people and others who refuse to obey commands. In South Tucson in May, one was used to subdue a 9-year-old girl who police feared might harm herself.

To promote the guns' safety, Taser officials created a report detailing 42 cases of people who died after being shot by a Taser. They say the stun guns were cleared each and every time.

"It is not Taser International that says Taser is not to blame," Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith said in an April news release. "It is the medical examiner's opinion in every single case across the country."

Taser is the outgrowth of a device called the Air Taser, developed by Rick and Tom Smith, working out of the Tucson garage of Jack Cover, developer of the original Taser in the 1970s.

The company said its special report is based on medical examiners' findings and includes "a summary of all the autopsy reports." The company actually relied on media accounts and anecdotal information from police for most of its analysis.

The company's report does not include details suggesting a Taser could have played a role in someone's death. The report also omits published findings of a medical examiner who concluded that electrical shocks from a Taser contributed directly to the death of a man in an Indiana jail.

When presented with cases linking Tasers to deaths, Smith said the medical examiners got it wrong and dismissed their reports.

Smith said medical examiners are generalists who don't have the expertise needed to analyze deaths involving the stun gun. And they often "throw everything" into autopsy reports as a way to cover themselves so they can't be accused of missing something later on.

"There is no penalty for a coroner to be overly broad," Smith said. "These guys deal with the whole broad spectrum of what can go wrong in the human body. Am I going to expect that they are going to be right 100 percent of the time? No."

Smith said his company's report presents the "big picture" of Taser-related deaths. He said it proves that Tasers are not to blame and that actual autopsies are not needed to summarize each case.

"I know in my heart what the truth is," Smith said. "Taser hasn't killed any of these people."

Taser zealously guards its nonlethal reputation. From the moment someone dies after being shot with a Taser, company officials respond with prepared statements, statistical research, medical reports and assurances that the stun gun is not to blame. They said Tasers have saved more than 4,000 lives since 1999.

Often, company officials point to a person's pre-existing conditions and insist the person would have died with or without being shocked by a Taser.

But relatives of those who have died in Taser-related incidents said the company rushes its defense, predicting the outcome of cases before investigations are finished.

Kelly Deitrich, whose brother, Raymond Siegler, died in February after being shot by police with a Taser in a Minneapolis group home for mentally ill people, said Taser's explanations are misleading.

"That is the polite way to say it," she said. "The other way to say it is they are full of you-know-what."

Fatal police shootings in major cities have sent many departments scrambling for alternatives to deadly force.

Stun guns had been around for decades but were distrusted or dismissed by police because they lacked stopping power.

But in 1999, Taser introduced the Advanced M26, promising instant incapacitation without injury; its 50,000-volt charge overrides the central nervous system, forces muscle contraction and is virtually impossible to shrug off.

Officers who volunteered to get zapped by the new guns became instant believers and instant buyers. By 2002, annual sales jumped 44 percent.
Demand for Tasers has sent the company's stock price soaring. The shares, which traded for less than $2 just two years ago, reached $60 in April. The stock took a drubbing later in April after safety questions were raised by media reports, falling back into the mid-20s. It has climbed to $40 since as the company has announced new contracts with law enforcement agencies and the U.S. military.

Medical examiners in different parts of the country have linked Tasers to at least five deaths.

The Republic, using computer searches, media accounts, police reports and Taser's own records, identified 44 cases in the United States and Canada of death following a police Taser strike from September 1999 to March 2004.

Using public-records laws, the Republic requested autopsy reports for those 44 cases and has received 22.

The autopsy of James Borden, who died Nov. 6 after being shot with a Taser for initially refusing to pull up his pants in an Indiana county jail, listed electrical shock as one of three causes of death.

Forensic pathologist Roland Kohr said Borden, 47, died of a heart attack due to an enlarged heart, pharmacologic intoxication and electrical shocks.

Taser included Borden's case in its report on the 42 deaths, but the company left out the part about electrical shock.

Under the heading "medical examiners report," Taser said the coroner ruled Borden's death accidental, "the result of his enlarged heart, drug intoxication and a heart attack."

Rather than the actual Nov. 7 autopsy report, Taser took its description of Borden's death from a February article in the Indiana University student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student.

Smith said it was a mistake not to include the electrical-shock finding in Taser's report. He promised to immediately correct the company's Web site to reflect all of the medical examiner's findings. But weeks later, the reference remains unchanged.

Smith still challenges the autopsy's validity.

"(The medical examiner) threw in the kitchen sink. He threw it all in there. We think, frankly, that was irresponsible," Smith said. "I don't believe the autopsy is legitimate."

Dr. William Anderson, a former deputy chief medical examiner in Orange County, Fla., reported that Taser shocks and cocaine contributed to the death of a man in 2002.

"We were looking at positional asphyxia," said pathologist William Anderson, who now works as a private forensic consultant in Orlando. "Taser probably got him in that situation."

Positional asphyxia refers to suffocation after being restrained. Anderson said Taser strikes likely made it hard for Jones to breathe.

Nine months after the death, county officials sought a second opinion. Dr. Cyril Wecht concluded the man died primarily of a cocaine overdose.

Anderson said he still thinks the Taser played a part in Jones' death. And he thinks the stun guns have contributed to other deaths.

"I can't for the life of me figure out why the company is resisting that (admission)," he said, adding that Taser officials go too far by insisting the gun has never killed.

Anderson said the guns can interrupt normal heart activity, especially in people prone to cardiac arrhythmia or who have low blood oxygen and are struggling to breathe.

Anderson acknowledged that Tasers are a valuable tool.

"It is safer than shooting someone with a gun," he said. "But you have 40 to 50 cases where people were shot with Taser and died. That's a little too much just to be coincidental."

Smith dismissed each of these cases as inconclusive. He said his company did not have a responsibility to include the entire medical examiners' findings in its report.

He said the only apparent pattern involves drugged suspects exerting all of their strength to fight police. At the end of the fight, the suspect's pulse goes weak and he dies.

"That's unfortunately the pattern of death, and we just don't see any correlation with Taser."

If anything, Smith said, Taser extends the life of those fighting with police because it instantly ends the struggle.

"It is safer to the person than allowing them to fight for another five minutes," he said. "Taser (prevents) people from exerting themselves to that point where they otherwise would have died."

Smith defends with statistics. He said 70,000 people have been voluntarily zapped with Tasers and 45,000 suspects have been shot by police, all without incident.

Some police departments have put Taser purchases on hold because of reports that the gun might be linked to deaths.

"We delayed until we can see what surfaces from some investigations," Fort Valley (Ga.) Police Chief Jan Cary said. "I want to get the smoke cleared and get a clean bill of health for Taser."

Cary said he was looking for a weapon more effective than pepper spray and less physical than a baton.

"Taser would meet the bill. But as we started to firm it up, then we started to get these unexplained deaths," he said.

Police officials in cities across America said there is little evidence that Tasers cause deaths.

They said the stun guns reduce injuries to suspects and officers, save cities millions in worker's compensation claims and liability lawsuits, and drastically reduce the number of officer-involved shootings.

In Phoenix, police report that a year after issuing Tasers to all patrol officers, police shootings dropped 54 percent, from 28 in 2002 to 13 last year, the lowest total since 1990.

Phoenix police Sgt. Randy Force said Tasers have saved the lives of officers and suspects. He called it one of the best additions to the police arsenal in decades.

"It has been a very effective tool for us," he said. "When you look at options officers have, every one of them has a likelihood of causing serious injury or death. Taser is a tool that allows reliable incapacitation without physical injury or death."

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