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Taser's Role In 2 Deaths Examined

Aug 9, 2005 | Arizona Republic

Two Valley men who died over the weekend after being shocked with Tasers in confrontations with police bring the number of deaths in the United States and Canada following stun-gun strikes to 147.

The men, both of whom exhibited bizarre behavior and refused to follow police commands, were the fourth and fifth people to die in police-custody incidents involving Taser since Aug. 1.

Autopsies will determine the cause of death in each case and whether the Taser strikes played a role.
The two deaths come about a week after a Chicago medical examiner for the first time named Taser as the primary cause of someone's death and less than a month after an Illinois police department filed a class-action lawsuit claiming company officials misled law enforcement agencies about the safety of its weapon.

Scottsdale-based Taser International, which maintains that its stun guns have never caused a death or serious injury, has been fighting to overcome safety concerns that this year have caused some police departments to stop using Tasers, led to a drop in the company's stock price and resulted in state and federal inquiries into the company's safety claims.

"We know that over 7,800 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. continue to deploy Taser devices to prevent numerous injuries and save lives every day," Taser Vice President Steve Tuttle said in a statement Monday. "Until all the facts surrounding these recent incidents are known, it is crucial that the public understand that it is inappropriate to jump to any conclusions on the cause of these unfortunate deaths."

On Sunday, an unidentified man died in a confrontation with Phoenix police after tearing up the restrooms of a taco restaurant on Seventh Street and locking himself in a women's stall.

Police say the 47-year-old man displayed great strength, kicking and swinging his arms at three officers who were trying to arrest him.

"A struggle lasting five minutes or longer took place," Phoenix police Sgt. Randy Force said in a statement. "Officers reported that the suspect threw them around easily and (the officers) were nearly exhausted by the time they finally subdued him."

During the struggle, officers deployed Tasers five times for five seconds each time, said Sgt. Lauri Williams, a Phoenix police spokeswoman.

The Taser, which uses electricity to override the nervous system and incapacitate a suspect, normally works by firing two darts from distances of 21 feet. But it can also be used as a hand-held device, in which officers push the probes of the stun gun directly against a suspect's skin. According to Force, officers carried the man outside. Although he had been breathing fast before and after being shocked with the Taser, his breathing slowed. Paramedics transported him to a Phoenix hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The incident is similar to the July 15 death of Ernesto Valdez, the last suspect to die in the custody of Phoenix police after being shocked with a Taser before Sunday. Valdez broke into a Church's Chicken restaurant after closing time, chased out the employees, began throwing himself at the walls and fought with police. During the struggle, Valdez was shocked three times with a Taser.

To date, seven men have died in the Valley after police Taser strikes.

On Friday, a 38-year-old man died after being shocked by Glendale police outside of a minimart. The man, Olsen Ogodidde, was sleeping in the back of a car that wasn't his.

When police ordered him to come out, he reportedly refused to move. Officers attempted to remove him and shocked him in an arm and a leg with a Taser before he was arrested, said Officer Mike Peña, a Glendale police spokesman.

Officers suspected that Ogodidde was impaired by an unidentified substance and called paramedics to take him to the hospital, where police say he had a seizure and died.

The two Valley cases over the weekend followed three deaths in California last week involving suspects who were shocked by police during struggles with officers in Sacramento, Fremont and San Jose.

Police and Taser officials caution that the sequence of events involving the deaths is typical of violent suspects who fight with police and then die in custody whether a Taser is used or not.

"It is the safer use-of-force alternative available for law enforcement agencies to subdue violent individuals who could harm law enforcement officers, innocent citizens or themselves," Tuttle said. "We are prepared to help the investigations of these tragic incidents."

For years, Taser officials have publicly said the stun gun was never cited in an autopsy report.

But an Arizona Republic investigation last year revealed that Tasers have been cited repeatedly by medical examiners in death cases and that Taser did not start collecting autopsy reports until April.

Of the 147 cases of death in the United States and Canada after a police Taser shock since 1999, coroners have cited Tasers in at least 18 deaths.

They cited the stun gun as a cause of death in four cases and a contributing factor in 10 cases.

In four other cases, medical examiners said Taser could not be ruled out as a cause of death.

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