A non-lethal weapon becomes a problem when it starts killing people. Many experts and critics of the Taser stun gun believe that time has long since passed.
For example, using a number of sources, The Arizona Republic has compiled a list of 140 cases in the United States and Canada since 1999 where a death followed the use of a Taser stun gun.
The sources used included autopsy reports, computer searches, police reports, media accounts, and Taser International’s own records. To date, the research indicates that medical examiners have cited the Taser to some extent in 18 deaths. In four cases it was a cause of death, in 10 it was a contributing factor, and in four it could not be ruled out as a cause of death.
This, however, seems to be just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to Taser International’s mounting problems with respect to its approximately 100,000 stun guns now being used by some 7,000 U.S. law-enforcement agencies.
Despite the company’s spirited defense of its product, Taser International’s stock has continued to fall from $33.45 in December 2004 to $9.72 on Friday, a decline of over 70%.
From the very beginning, many experts questioned the safety of the 50,000 volt “non-lethal” weapon. A lack of adequate testing and independent medical evidence supporting the company’s bold marketing claims have been cited by such diverse critics as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a consulting electrical engineer as reasons for removing the stun guns from the market until more extensive testing is done especially with respect to how the device affects pregnant women, people on drugs, or those with heart conditions.
Even the International Association of Chiefs of Police have suggested that further testing is needed. The organization advocates using the device only to subdue violent suspects; not to use it on handcuffed persons unless they are “overly assaultive;” to use it the least number of times; and to seek medical attention for anyone who has been shocked.
In addition, all types of Taser-related lawsuits abound. Personal injury and death claims have been commenced in a number of states. In March of this year, Mesa, Arizona, settled a claim by a 43-year-old man who fell out of a tree after being shocked twice with a Taser by a city police officer. The City paid $2.2 million to the man who became a quadriplegic and another $200,000 to the hospital where he was treated.
A class-action lawsuit was commenced only last week in U.S. District Court in Chicago by the city of Dolton, Illinois, on behalf of police departments across the country for being misled about the safety of the Taser and for leaving the police with weapons that are too dangerous to use on the street.
The law firm representing the city of Dolton claims to have already been retained by other police departments in four states. Paul Geller, an attorney from that firm, states that the law suit would be dropped if Taser would agree to take back the stun guns.
The potential for huge personal injury and death claims have left many municipalities rethinking their purchase of Tasers. Some police forces like those in Birmingham and Lucas County (Ohio) have either stopped issuing the weapons or have pulled them of the street altogether. Other cities like Chicago have backed off making additional purchases.
The mayor of Birmingham ordered police to stop using Tasers after the death of an inmate who had been shocked with a Taser several hours before he died.
The mayor of Dolton, which suspended their use, calls his city’s purchase of Tasers “a mistake” because “they need far more testing.” He went on to say that losing the money his city paid for the Tasers was far less than the financial risk posed by even one wrongful-death lawsuit.
On January 6, 2005 Taser officials disclosed that federal authorities had launched an inquiry into claims made by the company with respect to its safety studies. The Securities and Exchange Commission was also probing an end-of-year sale which appeared to inflate sales in order to meet annual projections.
In May, The Arizona Republic also reported that “Taser International was deeply involved in a Department of Defense study that company officials touted to police departments and investors as ‘independent’ proof of the stun gun’s safety…This information is surfacing at a time when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona attorney general are pursuing inquiries into safety claims that the Scottsdale firm has made.”
On July 17, the Associated Press reported a Texas man died after being shocked between three and six times with a Taser by an off-duty police officer who was acting as a security guard. The man’s wife said she was suing Taser International because her husband “didn’t deserve the death penalty.” It appears the men had done little more than trespass on private property and confront the officer who had chased him.
The report went on to state: “In the past nine months, at least six people in Texas including three in Fort Worth have died after authorities shocked them with a Taser gun.”
Finally, only yesterday, several news sources reported that the Cook County (Chicago, Illinois) Medical Examiner had ruled the February 10 death of an agitated 54-year-old man was caused by being shocked excessively with a Taser.
The finding indicated that the 57-second shock was sufficient, in and of itself, to have killed the man. Why such a long shock (ten times the usual amount) was administered has not been explained.
Although the Chicago police force will continue to use the Tasers they already have, an order for additional units was suspended.
Taser has vigorously defended its stun guns in every situation where it has been linked to an injury or death. The company continues to maintain that Tasers are non-lethal and that all of the reports regarding deaths and injuries associated with the device are baseless and can be explained
away on the basis of other causes.
A recent training bulletin issued by Taser, however, advised police that “repeated, prolonged, and/or continuous exposures to the Taser may cause strong muscle contractions that may impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the probes are placed across the chest or diaphragm.”
While Taser International’s position can be understood in terms of corporate self-preservation, it appears as if its stun gun is little more than a cat that is rapidly running out of lives. Only so many deaths and injuries can be explained away as coincidences or attempts to sully the name of a good product.