by Matt Clarke
A recent investigation by Reuters revealed that over 1,000 people died after being socked by Taser "conducted energy weapons." Tasers are marketed as a "non-lethal" alternative to firearms, but Reuters discovered that the Tasers' electroshock was listed as a cause or contributing factor in 153 of the deaths.
The actual number may be much higher. Reuters was able to access only 712 of the autopsy records for the 1,005 post-Taser-shock deaths because they are not public records in some states. Taser International, which recently renamed itself Axon Enterprises, Inc., has always maintained that its weapons are almost never to blame when someone dies after being shocked. The company says the death is almost always caused by an underlying physiological condition, such as a heart problem, or other external factors such as drug use or additional application of force by police. But this may be a distinction without a difference as the core question is whether the person would have died had the Taser not been used, not whether the Taser is fatal to a young, health person who has never used drugs--the kind of person the police rarely deal with.
Axon claims that only 24 people have been killed by Tasers--18 from fatal neck or head injuries received when the shocked person fell and six from fires sparked by a Taser's electrical arc. Yet, in 153 of the 712 autopsies, the use of a Taser was listed as a cause or contributing factor, usually as one of several elements resulting in death. Many of the other autopsies listed a combination of heart or other medical conditions, drug use and trauma as the causes or contributing factors in the deaths.
Since the Taser began being marketed in the early 2000s, it has grown in popularity among the nation's around 18,000 police agencies until almost 90% of them equip their officers with the weapon. The most common model, the X26, fires two barbed darts which are connected to the Taser by thin conductive wires. These are capable of delivering a 50,000-volt shock, sufficient to paralyze muscles--including the heart if the darts land in the chest. Tasers also have a "drive stun" mode in which the gun is pressed against the body, causing intense pain, but no paralysis.
The Tasers are designed to deliver a five-second shock through the barbs, but there is no limit on how many times the trigger can be pulled. Often, a Taser death is the result of multiple shocks. For instance, Omaha police officers Scotty Payne and Ryan McClarty were fired and charged with felony assault after they shocked Zachary Bearheels 12 times, killing him. Bearheels, 29, had been kicked off a bus and refused to leave a store. The incident was video-recorded and the coroner's report listed physical struggle and physical restraint as well as the Taser shocks as the causes of death.
A single Taser shock can also cause death police in Michigan shot Robert Mitchell, 17, in the chest with a Taser. They administered one five-second shock. He collapsed and died. Following Mitchell's death, Taser updated its operating manual advising police to avoid shooting people in the chest. But this flies in the face of the firearms training police receive where the "center mass" (chest) shot is preferred.
In 400 of the cases reviewed by Reuters, court documents provided a sufficiently detailed account of the fatal incidents to determine that Tasers were the only form of force employed by police in about a quarter of the cases. Over 100 of the fatal incidents began with a 911 call during a medical emergency. Nine out of ten involved people who were unarmed. A quarter involved people suffering from a neurological disorder or mental health breakdown.
No government agency tracks Taser fatalities. No agency regulates the product or its use. Amazingly, neither the X26 nor its predecessor, the M26, were every inspected by an electrical standards body. Most of the information about the effects of Tasers has been gleaned from lawsuits. Even then, the lawsuit settlements often include confidentiality agreements.
Tom Schrock, 57, died after being shocked with a Taser by Ontario, California police in 2012. His wife had called 911 seeking his transport to a hospital because he was suffering a breakdown. The family sued the police and Taser. The city settled for $500,000 and the case against Taser was dismissed. Neither side would say whether there was a settlement with Taser.
People in a mental health crisis seem to be especially at risk for fatal Taser shocks according to a study by the Stanford University Criminal Justice Center. The study concluded that Tasers should not be deployed against people who are suffering from mental illness, have certain medical conditions, are pregnant, have seizures or who have used drugs or alcohol.
McAdam Lee Mason, 39, suffered from seizures and mental illness. He was disoriented from a recent seizure when he called a counseling center to tell them he was angry enough to kill himself or someone else. They called police.
Responding Vermont police found Mason stumbling around his back yard, ignoring orders to lie down on the ground and yelling, "Shoot me!" His wife begged police not to shoot or Taser him, explaining that he "just had a seizure, you'll kill him." Police ignored her, shocked him and he died. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as "sudden cardiac death due to conducted electrical weapon discharge."
Mason's mother and the ACLU lobbied the Vermont Legislature for restrictions on Taser use. The law was enacted in 2014. It limits police use of Tasers and sets training standards for officers who carry them.
When retired NASA engineer Jack Cover invented the conducted energy weapon in 1969, it was less dangerous. Cover used a five-watt system that would get people's attention, but would not knock them down. By 1977, they were being field tested by police departments across the country.
In 1993, entrepreneurial brothers Rick and Tim Smith licensed the technology, founded Taser International, improved the weapon's trigger mechanism and accuracy, and quadrupled the electrical output while tripling its charge. Now the Taser could kill.
Bankruptcy was looming for Taser International in 1999 when the Smiths rushed the Model M26 into production. It was hailed as a weapon that changed how police did their jobs. The idea was that police would use Tasers instead of firearms. Time has shown that police do use Tasers instead of firearms, but they also use it in lieu of simply talking to the people they encounter. This is especially true of the police calls involving the mentally ill.
"Cops have been turned into mental health workers on the street," according to Ken Valentine, the former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General who advises law enforcement agencies on the use of force. "I fear that some police training and police practices have allowed the crowding out of persuasion, and the Taser has become the default tool."
The prevalence of police violence against the mentally ill has led some law enforcement agencies to adopt "crisis intervention training" that emphasizes using conflict de-escalation strategies instead of force. Sadly, only about 3,000 of the 18,000 agencies have such a program. In most agencies, using a Taser is still preferred over shooting--or talking with--a suspect.
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