July 28, 2004
ROBERT MATAS, Globe & Mail
VANCOUVER -- The family of Robert Bagnell was startled to find out through media reports last weekend that police used a Taser stun gun to subdue him moments before he stopped breathing and died.
"That's no way to hear about it," his mother Riki Bagnell said yesterday in an interview from her home outside Summerside, PEI.
"Why did not someone say, 'This could be controversial, and be prepared to hear more about it.' Needless to say, I was quite shocked," she said. "I cannot imagine a parent wanting to find out something like this like we did."
Vancouver police were quick to apologize yesterday after hearing about the Bagnells' distress.
"It was our mistake, and we apologize to the family," police spokeswoman Constable Sarah Bloor said in an interview.
The police originally spoke to the family before the officers' reports on the incident were compiled.
"We are more than happy to answer any questions they have about the actions that evening," she added.
Mr. Bagnell died June 23. Vancouver police announced his death on Friday, a month after police confronted him and used a stun gun to calm him down.
He was the third person in Canada to die in the past year after being shot by police officers with a Taser, a high-voltage weapon that lets loose 50,000 volts of electricity for five seconds.
The coroner has not yet determined the cause of Mr. Bagnell's death. A toxicology report says a lethal amount of cocaine was found in his body.
Nevertheless, his death reignited the national debate over use of the high-voltage weapon. Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham argued the gun is an effective, non-lethal weapon that saves lives in confrontations with combative individuals.
Some advocates of proper treatment of the mentally ill support that view. But the Canadian Safety Council has called for a comprehensive review of the Taser's use.
Mrs. Bagnell said Vancouver police phoned her two days after her son's death. A police detective said her son had stopped breathing while they were trying to subdue him. They did not mention that a stun gun had been used during the confrontation.
Mrs. Bagnell and her husband Bob had the impression her son, who was a drug addict, had died of a drug overdose. They thought maybe they hadn't heard everything and asked a close friend who was an RCMP constable to phone Vancouver police and ask more questions. Police repeated the same details. Once again, they did not mention the use of a Taser.
A week later, Vancouver's coroner called the Bagnells to inform them about the process leading to a public inquiry into the death. The coroner, Stephen Fonseca, also did not mention the use of a stun gun.
Mr. Fonseca said yesterday in an interview it was not his responsibility to tell the family about the Taser. "Anything relevant to the death will be presented at the inquest," he said.
Mr. Bagnell's sister, Patti Gillman, said in an interview that the family held a quiet memorial in Prince Edward Island on July 18. Her brother's friends in Vancouver celebrated his life on July 14.
The family was told he was happy and doing fairly well in Vancouver at the time of his death, she said. Her parents were pleased to hear that.
"That completed the circle," she said. "When they heard there was a service in Vancouver and 22 or 23 people were at the service . . . it made them feel a little better."
Then a week later, they found out about the Taser. They were upset. "They thought they had closure," Ms. Gillman said.
Mr. Bagnell was 44 when he died. (Police mistakenly announced last week he was 54.) He had been involved with drugs since he was a teenager. His family said he was "a street person" and sold artwork at street corners. He air-brushed artwork on the sides of trucks in exchange for rides.
When police called to inform them of his death, his mother had not seen him for 15 years and had not spoken to him for eight. They had tried unsuccessfully to find him, she said.
"If he had died of an overdose, it would not be a surprise to anyone. We knew his lifestyle," she said.
But they were caught off guard by the reports about the Taser. "The weapon should not be used indiscriminately," Mrs. Bagnell said.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
July 28, 2004
Monday, July 26, 2004
July 26, 2004
It's not often that a camera records a man's death, but, as CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports, that's what's happened in an Indiana jail. As 47-year-old James Borden hits the ground, officer David Shaw is shocking him with a 50,000-volt Taser stun gun.
According to medical records, Shaw used the Taser at least six times before Borden died. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. The coroner, Dr. Roland Kohr, called the Taser shock partly responsible for Borden's death. He found that Borden had heart disease and toxic levels of two drugs, but that the stress from the Taser is what pushed him off edge.
"The application of the Taser was the trigger factor which stressed an already damaged heart to the point that it went into cardiac arrest," says Kohr. "The Taser is what triggered his heart attack."
Kohr's autopsy has sent its own shockwaves because it directly contradicts safety claims made by the company. "The Taser is not involved and has not caused a death," says Taser CEO Rick Smith.
Smith remains adamant the weapon has never been blamed for a death, even in the face of Kohr's ruling and even as the number of Taser-related fatalities has now passed 50. "I rely on the advice of medical experts who have told me there is absolutely no basis to conclude the Taser contributed to this man's death," says Smith.
In all its public statements, Taser Corp. tells investors and the police agencies that buy the weapon that Taser has never caused a death. However, CBS News first reported more than three months ago how an Indiana autopsy found that Taser was a contributing factor in the Borden death.
Yet, on Taser's Web site, where the company keeps a list of the fatalities and all the official findings that exonerate the weapon, you won't find the opinion from Kohr. Every other time a medical examiner has ruled in its favor, the company includes it in a grid on its Web site. But Kohr's findings were left out.
Asked why, Smith says, "They were disputed by our medical experts who read them and thought they were inaccurate."
Nationwide, the Taser is more popular than ever. Police believe it saves lives by ending confrontations short of gunfire. But Kohr, who agrees the Taser is generally safe, believes that on the wrong person, it's more deadly than the company claims.
Saturday, July 24, 2004
July 24, 2004
ROBERT MATAS, Globe & Mail
Police defend their use as second person in two months dies after being shocked
VANCOUVER -- Robert Bagnell was an artist involved in what he described as the dark arts. He did tattoos with threatening dragons, sketches and oil paintings.
The 54-year old man, known on the street as Riff Raff, was also a drug addict. He told people he was dying from AIDS. He had red sores on his body, and would say he needed hard drugs to cope with the pain.
Mark Clermont saw Mr. Bagnell about an hour before a confrontation with police who tried to subdue him with a Taser high-voltage gun. The weapon fires 50,000 volts of electric current through two barbs for about five seconds. Mr. Bagnell died shortly after.
It was Mr. Bagnell's birthday.
"He seemed all right," Mr. Clermont said yesterday. "He had done a lot of drugs, but he was easygoing."
He died on June 23, police revealed yesterday, after the confrontation at the Continental Hotel, a city-owned residential hotel on the edge of downtown Vancouver where he lived. The residents are all over 40 years old and most of them are on government support or pensions. Some are mentally ill. The rent is $325 a month.
Mr. Bagnell had locked himself in the washroom across the hall from his fifth-floor room. Mr. Clermont said he heard that police found lots of blood smeared around the bathroom when they went in.
Details were sketchy yesterday about exactly what happened in the bathroom. Vancouver police spokeswoman Constable Sarah Bloor said patrol officers and emergency response team members had been called to the hotel to deal with a violent man. Mr. Bagnell was screaming and destroying bathroom fixtures.
An officer used the Taser gun to calm him down, she said. While being handcuffed and arrested, Mr. Bagnell stopped breathing. Emergency services were called in but could not revive him.
The cause of death has not yet been determined. Police waited a month before announcing the death so they could obtain the toxicology report, Constable Bloor said.
The report indicated that Mr. Bagnell's blood contained lethal levels of cocaine and other drugs, she said. Neither the coroner's service nor the police would make the toxicology report public yesterday.
Mr. Bagnell was the second person in Vancouver to die in the past two months after being subdued by the high-voltage gun. As well, 29-year-old boxer Jerry Knight died last week in a Mississauga, Ont., motel after police used a Taser during a violent confrontation.
The announcement of Mr. Bagnell's death reignited the debate over police use of the gun.
Vancouver police vigorously defend the use of the Taser as an effective, measured response to combative individuals. No coroner in North America has ever identified a shot from a Taser as a cause of death, Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham said at a news conference.
"We know that the Taser saves lives and reduces injuries. We also know it is safe and it works," he said, adding that the Taser gun is one of the most effective non-lethal tools ever used by police.
"When an officer is faced with deadly force or grievous bodily harm to himself or others, they really have only one option, the use of their gun," Chief Graham said. However, Tasers prevent incidents from escalating to the point where a gun may be required.
"By preventing that escalation, lives of suspects, police officers and innocent people are saved and the number of injuries are reduced," he said. Having a Taser means that police do not have to resort to deadly force when dealing with people who cannot think straight because of alcohol, drugs or mental illness.
The use of the Taser was endorsed yesterday as an alternative to fatal force by Fred Dawe, president of the British Columbia Schizophrenia Society and past president of the Canadian Schizophrenia Society, and Richard Dolman, a widely published advocate of proper treatment of the mentally ill.
"Taser gives police a non-lethal alternative to firearms when attempting to subdue a person," Mr. Dawe said.
The B.C. Schizophrenia Society has been urging police to use Tasers since 1999, Mr. Dolman said. "We could see the tremendous advantage it would have in avoiding death through the use of firearms in extreme circumstances."
This week, civil-rights lawyer Julian Falconer called for federal monitoring of the use of Tasers. Critics say the stun guns are overused and their safety questionable.
The police have few personal details about Mr. Bagnell. Chief Graham said he had not met with Mr. Bagnell's family, although some officers from the Vancouver Police Department had.
Residents of the Continental Hotel said they thought Mr. Bagnell was from Cape Breton or Newfoundland, but they were not sure. They said he supplemented his government cheque with "bottling" and dumpster diving. They did not know when he came to Vancouver or where his family lived.
Mr. Clermont questioned whether the police were trying to divert attention from the Taser by citing the results of the toxicology report. He said police told hotel residents that Mr. Bagnell died of an overdose, "but maybe it was a combination of things."
The Taser alone may not have caused his death, he said, but neither did the cocaine.
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
July 20, 2004
JEFF GRAY, Globe and Mail
Peel Regional Police say they have no plans to re-evaluate the use of Taser stun guns, even as questions about their safety surfaced after the death of a 29-year-old Brampton man in a confrontation with police officers on the weekend.
"We stand by their effectiveness," police spokesman Acting Sergeant Craig Platt said yesterday of the weapons, which are meant to deliver non-lethal electric shocks to subdue suspects.
Witnesses said that Jerry Knight, a 29-year-old former boxer, went berserk in the lobby of a Mississauga motel at about 2 a.m. Saturday, throwing and smashing objects.
Police were called, and the province's Special Investigations Unit, looking into the death, said an officer used a Taser to subdue Mr. Knight.
SIU spokeswoman Rose Bliss said yesterday that the cause of death had not been determined, and that more tests are needed before the results of yesterday's postmortem would be known. An officer was designated a subject officer of the investigation, she said, and the Taser was seized.
As with all deaths of people in police custody, a coroner's inquest has been called, and will take place after the SIU completes its probe.
Mr. Knight's friend and former boxing coach, Peter Sjouwerman, 70, said he suspected his onetime protégé, who won a silver medal as a welterweight at the Canadian championships in his late teens, was having trouble with drugs.
Still, Mr. Knight, who kept in shape despite dropping his dream of one day representing Canada at the Olympics, was well liked and a gym fixture, Mr. Sjouwerman said.
"He was a very funny guy, quick to laugh, and he had a great laugh. We were very close."
"There is a percentage of risk in these Tasers -- but on the other hand, in a gun there's a lot more danger. Obviously, there was something wrong that night. . . . Who knows how strong, how bullheaded he was?"
The Peel Regional Police tactical squad has carried Tasers since November, 2002.
Sgt. Platt defended the stun guns as a way to avoid using bullets to stop suspects from hurting police or bystanders: "The firearm is a lethal option. The Taser is a non-lethal option. If we take the Taser away, it's one less option that we have."
Other forces across the Greater Toronto Area -- Toronto's, Halton's, York's and Durham's -- said that specially trained tactical units have been equipped with Tasers.
Durham Regional Police spokesman David Selby said the weapons are not used often by his force but that officers feel they are useful.
"Obviously, the province is going to be looking at this case closely. And obviously, we're going to be looking very closely at that, too.
"We don't want to be using anything that isn't safe."
July 20, 2004
ERIN POOLEY, Globe and Mail
Information lacking on extent of use and by whom, rights advocate says
The use of controversial Taser stun guns by police forces across the country should be monitored more closely by the federal government, a civil rights lawyer said yesterday.
"What is disturbing is, it's not clear there are any kind of provincial or national regulations that regulate their usage and frequency of usage," Julian Falconer said. "Right now there is an utter lack of information concerning the frequency of usage of Tasers and who is using them. There has to be far greater transparency in their usage."
The debate over the use of Taser guns resurfaced after 29-year-old boxer Jerry Knight died on the weekend when police used one of the stun guns during a violent confrontation at a Mississauga motel.
Law-enforcement officials say the guns -- which deliver up to 50,000 volts of electricity to their targets, causing temporary loss of muscle control -- offer a safer and more effective alternative to the use of deadly force or pepper spray and batons.
But human-rights and civil-liberties groups argue that the weapons are being overused and that their safety is questionable.
The M26 Taser gun has been approved for use by several municipal police forces across Canada -- including those in Windsor, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and London.
Mr. Falconer, who co-chaired a 2001 conference on alternatives to the use of lethal force by municipal police departments, said it is extremely difficult to determine how many Tasers are out there, who is using them and the requirements officers must meet to use the "less-than-lethal" stun guns.
In Ontario, for example, where the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services approved Taser guns for specially trained emergency response officers and hostage-rescue teams, ministry officials said they do not keep track of the number of Taser guns across the province or the frequency of use.
"They buy them. They look after them. We don't have anything to do with them. All we do is approve them," ministry spokesman Bruce O'Neill said yesterday. "We give them the guidelines, and as long as they fall under the guidelines, it's up to them."
In February, Monte Kwinter, Minister of Community Safety, expanded the use of Tasers to include "front-line supervisors" -- the officers who secure an area before emergency tactical units arrive on scene.
Mr. Kwinter also approved a six-month pilot of a smaller and more expensive version of the Taser for use by Toronto Police.
The battery-operated X26 model is 60 per cent smaller than the M26 and costs twice as much, at about $1,000.
The study is expected to be completed in September.
Taser International, the Arizona-based company that manufactures the guns, said the X26 delivers a more focused pulse that results in increased muscle contractions. However, it is less powerful than the M26.
A company spokesman also said a microchip contained in the X26 model will track when the gun is fired and for what duration.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, said yesterday the company "stands by the safety of its products 100 per cent."
He likened being shot with a Taser gun to "a funny bone that's working 18 times per second from head-to-toe" but added that the effects are only temporary.
Posted by Reality Chick at 12:31
July 20, 2004
Philip Mascoll, The Toronto Star
Former boxer on rampage in motel subdued by officers
Coroner will look into use of `less-lethal force' by police
An inquest has been called into the death of a former boxer after Peel Region police reportedly used a Taser gun to subdue him.
Jerry Knight, 29, of Brampton was pronounced dead on arrival at Peel Memorial Hospital at about 2 a.m. Saturday after an altercation at a motel near Pearson airport.
The inquest jury will be looking at all forms of "less-lethal force" used by police, said Ontario deputy chief coroner Jim Cairns.
"Right now, officers are equipped with pepper, a baton (nightstick) and then basically have to use deadly force," Cairns said. "Recently there has been discussion as to whether officers should be equipped with Tasers.
"We are not saying it (the Taser) did or did not play a part in the death," Cairns said.
Knight's death has sparked debate over the use of Tasers, which are electric guns that discharge up to 50,000 volts of electricity. The Tasers are designed to cause pain and temporary paralysis but not death, the makers say.
Witnesses reported that a disturbed Knight had "gone berserk" — hitting and throwing things around the office — and that prompted motel staff to call police. When police arrived, they tried to calm Knight, but he eventually had to be subdued.
Knight is the fourth person killed in a confrontation with police in the GTA this year.
Ironically, inquests planned to look into the other three deaths will be looking at the question of whether equipping more officers with Tasers would have saved lives, Cairns said.
There have been several deadly incidents involving police this year, including:
On Jan. 10, a Toronto police officer fatally shot mentally ill Antonio Bellon, 63, after Bellon shot another officer in the arm. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing, but mental health advocates demanded better training for officers.
On May 21, an undercover officer fatally shot 17-year-old Jeffrey Reodica after a confrontation in a quiet Scarborough neighbourhood around the corner from the bungalow where the teenager lived. Reodica died after being taken off life support at Sunnybrook hospital three days after the shooting.
On June 13, O'Brien Christopher-Reid was shot dead by police in Wilket Creek Park, south of Edwards Gardens after he allegedly lunged at an officer with a knife.
In Knight's case, staff from the Special Investigations Unit, which investigates civilian death and injury in police operations, were trying to determine what happened as police attempted to keep Knight under control.
SIU spokesperson Rose Bliss said yesterday that an autopsy earlier in the day did not reveal a cause of death.
"The coroner will be doing further analysis and testing," Bliss said. She agreed toxicology would be part of those tests.
Cairns said a date for the inquest would be announced after the SIU investigation.
If any officer is found negligent in the death, the inquest would be held after any court proceedings.
"The inquest is going to look at anything that is involved in the death, including Tasers," Cairns said.
"This is the first inquest that we have had (in Ontario), to the best of my knowledge ... involving a person who has died after use of a Taser."
There have been four deaths involving Tasers in Canada but this is the first in Ontario.
In B.C., an inquest is to begin in October looking into the death of Clay Willey who died after police used a Taser to subdue him in 2003. He had suffered from both drug and heart problems.
A coroner's inquest into the cause of Willey's death is scheduled to begin this October in Prince George, B.C. An autopsy last year found that Willey died of a cocaine overdose, but his sister Bryna Willey disputes that claim, saying the Taser had an effect.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that several researchers have questions about the lack of independent research about Taser effects on humans, especially those with heart problems or drug addictions.
Cairns said it was a general policing principle that the least forceful methods to subdue a person are used.
But some of the methods have not been successful. Pepper spray, for example, "has all sorts of conditions in which it does not work," he said.
"All other options are really less lethal, rather than non-lethal. There have been cases where pepper spray has had adverse reaction of asthmatics, for example," Cairns said.
Knight's family refused comment when reached yesterday.
Monday, July 19, 2004
July 19, 2004
An inquest has been called into the death of a man who died in Mississauga, Ont. after a confrontation with police.
The province's Special Investigations Unit will investigate whether a Taser stun gun was involved and may have led to the death. The chief coroner's office says an inquest is mandatory when someone dies in police custody.
Jerry Knight, a 29-year-old former boxer, died Saturday after a run-in with police at the White Knight Motel in Mississauga, west of Toronto. Police were called to the scene after receiving a report a man was throwing and breaking things in the motel's front office.
When police arrived, a violent confrontation broke out. SIU spokeswoman Rose Bliss says Knight was likely struck with a Taser.
Knight was transported by paramedics to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
An autopsy was performed Monday but officials weren't able to identify a cause of death.
On Monday, human rights group Amnesty International Canada urged police across the country to stop using Tasers until an independent, public investigation could be done.
"We've campaigned as an organization for years to get the use of Tasers suspended until there is an independent and rigorous evaluation of their impact and medical effects," spokesman John Tackaberry told the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.
He said his group has linked Tasers to the deaths of two men in B.C. in 2003.
Taser guns are carried by many police forces across the country. They are designed to be a non-lethal way to subdue a suspect by discharging up to 50,000 volts of electricity.
Toronto police's Emergency Task Force has been using Taser guns for three-and-a-half years. They say there have been 240 deployments on record, and no problems.
"We find them very valuable," says Sgt. Roger Gibson. "They allow us to use less force to resolve issues. We can resolve most calls faster and there are no lasting effects."
There have been four deaths involving Tasers in Canada; this is the first in Ontario.
Taser International Inc., the maker of the stun gun device, says it is aware of Knight's death, and will be watching closely for the autopsy results.
On Sunday, several newspaper reports linked Taser guns to deaths.
An investigation by the New York Times found that 50 people in the U.S. had died since 2001 after being shocked with a Taser. At least six associated-Taser deaths were reported in June alone, the paper says.
It also took note of a Canadian study in 1989 that found Tasers induced heart attacks in pigs with pacemakers.
The Arizona Republic newspaper also published a report this weekend linking at least five deaths to Tasers.
Taser International rejected the report. It specifically took aim at a claim in the report that police in the field don't take the full five-second dose when training with the Taser.
It also points out that while there were nine deaths between May and June 2004 in incidents where Tasers were used, "there were at least 29 additional unexpected in-custody deaths during roughly this same time period where the Taser was not used."
"The more Taser weapons deployed, the more lives will be saved," the company says in a statement.
July 19, 2004
An autopsy, scheduled for today, of a Brampton man who died after a weekend confrontation with Peel police will be closely monitored by the U.S. company that manufactures a controversial stun gun used in the melee.
Jerry Knight, 29, died early Saturday after police responded to a disturbance call from the owner of the White Knight Motel on Dixie Road in Mississauga.
Mr. Knight was said to be throwing and breaking things in the front office of the motel. When Peel Regional Police arrived on the scene, a violent confrontation broke out and a Taser was used to subdue the man.
Paramedics transported Mr. Knight, a former semi-professional boxer, to Peel Memorial Hospital in Brampton, where he was pronounced dead. His death is being probed by members of the provincial Special Investigations Unit.
SIU spokeswoman Rose Bliss said that one officer has been designated as a subject of the investigation.
An autopsy, scheduled to be performed yesterday at the Centre of Forensic Sciences, was postponed until today because family members wanted to hold a prayer service for Mr. Knight.
He used to box for a club in Brampton, Ont., but was said to be training with a newly formed club in Newmarket, Ont.
A spokesman for Tasers International Inc., the Arizona-based company that manufactures the device that fires electrical charges, said the company is aware of the incident involving Mr. Knight and will be closely watching media reports for autopsy results.
A front-page story in yesterday's New York Times investigated the safety record of Tasers, which are used by police across Canada and the United States. The lengthy story said that 50 people in the U.S. have died since 2001 after being shocked by a Taser.
"We will stand by, as we always have, behind the safety of the product," Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said in an interview yesterday.
Mr. Tuttle said the company maintains that deaths which occur when Tasers are used are not the result of the device, but rather, because of other factors, such as drug overdoses.
Sunday, July 18, 2004
July 18, 2004
Robert Anglen, The Arizona Republic
When presented with cases linking Tasers to deaths, [Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick] Smith says the medical examiners got it wrong and dismisses their reports.
July 18, 2004
Alex Berenson, The New York Times
AZARETH, Pa. — As the sun set on June 24, something snapped in Kris J. Lieberman, an unemployed landscaper who lived a few miles from this quiet town. For 45 minutes, he crawled deliriously around a pasture here, moaning and pounding his head against the weedy ground.
Eventually the police arrived, carrying a Taser M26, an electric gun increasingly popular with law enforcement officers nationwide. The gun fires electrified barbs up to 21 feet, hitting suspects with a disabling charge.
The officers told Mr. Lieberman, 32, to calm down. He lunged at them instead. They fired their Taser twice. He fought briefly, collapsed and died.
Mr. Lieberman joined a growing number of people, now at least 50, including 6 in June alone, who have died since 2001 after being shocked. Taser International, which makes several versions of the guns, says its weapons are not lethal, even for people with heart conditions or pacemakers. The deaths resulted from drug overdoses or other factors and would have occurred anyway, the company says.
But Taser has scant evidence for that claim. The company's primary safety studies on the M26, which is far more powerful than other stun guns, consist of tests on a single pig in 1996 and on five dogs in 1999. Company-paid researchers, not independent scientists, conducted the studies, which were never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Taser has no full-time medical director and has never created computer models to simulate the effect of its shocks, which are difficult to test in human clinical trials for ethical reasons.
What is more, aside from a continuing Defense Department study, the results of which have not been released, no federal or state agencies have studied the safety, or effectiveness, of Tasers, which fall between two federal agencies and are essentially unregulated. Nor has any federal agency studied the deaths to determine what caused them. In at least two cases, local medical examiners have said Tasers were partly responsible. In many cases, autopsies are continuing or reports are unavailable.
The few independent studies that have examined the Taser have found that the weapon's safety is unproven at best. The most comprehensive report, by the British government in 2002, concluded "the high-power Tasers cannot be classed, in the vernacular, as `safe.' " Britain has not approved Tasers for general police use.
A 1989 Canadian study found that stun guns induced heart attacks in pigs with pacemakers. A 1999 study by the Department of Justice on an electrical weapon much weaker than the Taser found that it might cause cardiac arrest in people with heart conditions. In reviewing other electrical devices, the Food and Drug Administration has found that a charge half as large as that of the M26 can be dangerous to the heart.
While Taser says that the M26 is not dangerous, it now devotes most of its marketing efforts to the X26, a less powerful weapon it introduced last year. Both weapons are selling briskly. About 100,000 officers nationally now have Tasers, 20 times the number in 2000, and most carry the M26. Taser, whose guns are legal for civilian use in most states, hopes to expand its potential market with a new consumer version of the X26 later this summer.
For Taser, which owns the weapon's trademark and is the only company now making the guns, the growth has been a bonanza. Its stock has soared. Its executives and directors, including a former New York police commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik, have taken advantage, selling $60 million in shares since November.
Patrick Smith, Taser's chief executive, said the guns are safe. "We tell people that this has never caused a death, and in my heart and soul I believe that's true," Mr. Smith said.
Taser did not need to disclose the British results to American police departments, he said. "The Brits are extremely conservative," he said. "To me, this is sort of boilerplate, the fine print." In addition to Taser's animal trials, thousands of police volunteers have received shocks without harm, Mr. Smith said.
But the hits that police officers receive from the M26 in their Taser training have little in common with the shocks given to suspects. In training, volunteers usually receive a single shock of a half-second or less. In the field, Tasers automatically fire for five seconds. If an officer holds down the trigger, a Taser will discharge longer. And suspects are often hit repeatedly.
Over all, Taser has significantly overstated the weapon's safety, say biomedical engineers who separately examined the company's research at the request of The New York Times. None of the engineers have any financial stake in the company or any connection with Taser; The Times did not pay them.
Relatively small electric shocks can kill people whose hearts are weakened by disease or cocaine use, said John Wikswo, a Vanderbilt University biomedical engineer. But no one knows whether the Taser's current crosses the threshold for those people, Dr. Wikswo said.
"Their testing scheme has not included the possibility that there is a subset of the population that is exquisitely sensitive," Dr. Wikswo said. "That alone means they have not done adequate testing."
Mr. Smith said Taser would eventually run more tests. "In a perfect world, I'd love to have studies on all this stuff, but animal studies are controversial, expensive," he said. "You've got to do the reasonable amount of testing." Comparing Taser's tests with the studies conducted by makers of medical devices like pacemakers is unfair, he said.
Dr. Andrew Podgorski, a Canadian electrical engineer who conducted the 1989 study, said he was certain that Tasers were dangerous for people with pacemakers. More research is needed to determine if other people are vulnerable, he said.
"I would urge the U.S. government to conduct those studies," Dr. Podgorski said. "Shocking a couple of pigs and dogs doesn't prove anything."
In More Officers' Hands
Many police officers defend the Taser, saying the weapon helps them avoid using deadly force and lowers the risk of injury to officers. Tasers let police officers subdue suspects without wrestling with or hitting them, said David Klinger, a former police officer and a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. And Tasers are surely safer than firearms.
"I think it is appropriate for deployment in the field," Mr. Klinger said. "You trust this guy or gal with a gun, you should be able to trust them with a less lethal device."
But human rights groups say the police may be overusing the Taser. Because the gun leaves only light marks, and because Taser markets it as nonlethal, officers often use it on unruly suspects, not just as an alternative to deadly force, said Dr. William F. Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA. In recent incidents, officers have shocked a 9-year-old girl in Arizona and a 66-year-old woman in Kansas City.
"We think there should be controlled, systematic independent medical studies," Dr. Schulz said. "We would like to see these weapons suspended until these questions are answered."
A study by the Orange County, Fla., sheriff's office showed that officers used pepper spray and batons much less after getting the guns. But the use of Tasers more than made up for that drop, and the department's overall use of force increased 58 percent from 2000 to 2003. Last week, several police departments in Orange County agreed to restrict the use of Tasers to situations where suspects are actively resisting officers. The sheriff's office is not part of the agreement and says it is still studying the matter.
State and federal agencies do not keep tabs on Taser use, so no one knows how many times officers have fired the weapon. Officers have reported close to 5,000 uses of the M26 to Taser, but the company says the actual number is much higher.
Little evidence supports the theory that Tasers reduce police shootings or work better than other alternatives to guns, like pepper spray. Because of their limited range, Tasers are best in situations where an officer using a Taser is covered by another with a firearm, officers say.
A 2002 company study found that nearly 85 percent of people shocked with Tasers were unarmed. Fewer than 5 percent were carrying guns.
In Phoenix, which has equipped all its officers with Tasers, police shootings fell by half last year. Taser trumpets that statistic on its Web site. But last year's drop appears to be an anomaly. This year, shootings are running at a record pace, according to the Phoenix police department.
A 2002 study in Greene County, Mo., found that Tasers were only marginally more effective than pepper spray at restraining suspects. Pepper spray worked in 91 percent of cases, while the Taser had a 94 percent success rate.
The largest police departments have been slow to embrace the Taser. The New York Police Department owns only a handful of Tasers, which are used by specialized units and supervisors, a spokesman said.
'Gold in Those Hills'
The M26 was introduced only five years ago, but the technology is much older. John Cover, an Arizona inventor, created the Taser in 1969. Its name stands for "Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle," an allusion to the Tom Swift series of science fiction novels.
Engineers have known for generations that relatively small electric currents cause painful and uncontrollable muscle contractions. Tasers operate on that principle, firing barbs that are connected by wire to the gun and flood the body with current. The gun can deliver its shock even if the barbs do not break the skin because its current can jump through two inches of clothing.
Weak currents are not inherently dangerous if they stop in a few minutes. But stronger shocks can disrupt the electrical circuitry of the heart. That condition, ventricular fibrillation, causes cardiac arrest in seconds and death in minutes, unless the heart is defibrillated with an even larger shock.
The exact current needed to cause fibrillation depends on technical factors like the current's shape and frequency, as well as the heart's condition, said James Eason, a biomedical engineering professor at Washington and Lee University. But because fibrillation is so dangerous, scientists can conduct only limited human trials. They must estimate the threshold of fibrillation from animal trials and computer models.
Still, the broad parameters for fibrillation are known, and the first Taser from Mr. Cover had a large safety margin. In 1975 the Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded that weapon, which was 11 percent as powerful as the M26, probably would not harm healthy humans.
Then, in March 1976, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms claimed it had jurisdiction over the weapons because gunpowder propelled their barbs. The firearms bureau essentially outlawed them for civilian use; no federal safety standard was ever created.
But the original Tasers were bulky and often ineffective. For almost two decades, they remained a niche product used by a few police departments.
That began to change after 1993, when Mr. Smith and his brother Thomas created a company to market electric weapons to civilians. Patrick Smith, who had just graduated from the University of Chicago business school, saw enormous potential for an alternative to firearms.
"I just figured I'm going to go to out to Arizona, and I'm going to scratch and sniff and dig, and figure there's going to be gold in those hills," Mr. Smith said in an interview.
In January 1995, the Smiths introduced their first electric gun, which was powered by compressed nitrogen. As a result, the weapon was not regulated by the firearms bureau and could be sold to civilians.
For the next several years, the company struggled, as concerns over the gun's power kept sales slow. By 1999, the company, now known as Taser International, was near bankruptcy, with only $50,000 in the bank and $2.7 million in debt.
"It was pretty humiliating," he said. "We had completely wiped out my parents financially."
Hoping to stay afloat, the company introduced the Advanced Taser M26 in December 1999. The weapon closely resembled a handgun, a feature many police officers liked, and was very powerful.
According to Taser, the gun produced 26 watts of power, four times the power of the earlier model. A field test in 2001 by the Canadian police showed that the M26 was even stronger, with an output of 39 watts.
(Stun gun power is usually gauged in watts, a measure of electrical energy, even though the biological effects of electricity are more closely related to current strength, measured in amperes. Electrical engineers often compare the flow of electricity to a river: amperes are like the river's speed, while watts are the amount of water flowing by each second. As watts increase, amperes rise, but more slowly.)
Taser's sales rose as officers learned about the new gun. At meetings with police officers, company representatives encouraged them to receive a half-second shock to feel the weapon's power for themselves. "These guys would leave just absolutely evangelical about the product because we would just drop them all," Mr. Smith said.
In its marketing, the company touted the safety of the M26, saying it had been extensively tested.
But Taser had performed only two animal studies before introducing the M26.
In 1996, Taser hired Robert Stratbucker, a Nebraska doctor and farmer, to test the weapon. Dr. Stratbucker, who is now Taser's part-time medical director, shocked a pig 48 times with shocks as large as those from the M26. The pig suffered no heart damage.
Three years later, the company hired Dr. Stratbucker and Dr. Wayne McDaniel, an electrical engineer, for an animal test at the University of Missouri. The scientists shocked five anesthetized dogs about 200 times with the M26. The dogs did not suffer cardiac arrest, although one animal had changes in its heartbeat, according to a report.
Taser has repeatedly said the studies proved that the M26 was safe. But the biomedical engineers who reviewed the gun's safety for The Times said Taser should have conducted far more research.
"I don't think there has been a definitive study saying that yes it can contribute to death or no it cannot," said Dr. Raymond Ideker, an electrophysiologist and a professor in the cardiology division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Taser must test more animals and vary the shocks they receive to find the gun's safety margin, Dr. Ideker said.
In addition, while Taser claims that its Missouri study proves that the gun is safe for people who have used cocaine, it never tested animals dosed with cocaine. Because cocaine substantially increases heart attack risk, and Tasers are used on people who have taken cocaine, that omission is a serious flaw, said Dr. Wikswo of Vanderbilt.
The company should also examine risks other than fibrillation, some scientists say.
Dr. Terrence Allen, a former medical examiner in Los Angeles who examined cases in the late 1980's when people died after being shocked with earlier-model Tasers, said he was sure the weapons could be lethal. Taser is misrepresenting the medical evidence, said Dr. Allen, who has consulted for people who have sued the company.
Dr. Mark W. Kroll, a Taser director and the chief technology officer of St. Jude Medical, one of the largest pacemaker manufacturers, said Taser had adequately tested its weapons and they were safe. External pacemakers deliver much larger charges and do not cause fibrillation, he said.
Dr. Ideker countered that pacemakers and Tasers could not be easily compared, because the Taser's shock is very short and powerful, while a pacemaker delivers its charge over a much longer period.
Although Taser has performed only rudimentary studies of the M26, it has more closely studied the X26, the gun it introduced last year. In a 2003 study at the University of Missouri, Taser found that a shock roughly 20 times that of the X26 caused a healthy, anesthetized 85-pound pig to fibrillate.
Mr. Smith cites the 2003 Missouri study as proof that all Tasers have a safety margin of 20-to-1 or more. But the new gun puts out a charge only one-fourth as large as the older model, a fact Taser does not generally advertise.
The study said nothing about the M26, or about hearts stressed by disease, drugs or physical activity. "I think another test is warranted," Dr. Ideker said.
Taser did not test the older gun, which is associated with nearly all the deaths, because "we believed that the M26's safety record and prior testing speaks for itself," Mr. Smith said. "Could it be done? Absolutely. There's time and expense involved."
The X26 has become Taser's biggest seller, based mainly on the company's claims that it is even stronger than the M26 despite its small size and lower power. The company says the new gun enables electrical current to enter the body more efficiently.
No independent agency has tested the guns side by side, and in Taser's patent on the M26, Mr. Smith himself argued that weaker guns were often ineffective because they do not deliver enough current to incapacitate suspects. But neither deaths nor concerns about effectiveness have dampened police support and investor enthusiasm for Taser International. Stock analysts predict Taser will have $15 million in profits on sales of $60 million in 2004. Investors have bid up the company's shares 60-fold since last February, giving Taser a value of $1.2 billion.
The Smith brothers and their father, Phillips, have sold $46 million in Taser shares since November, according to federal filings. They still own $130 million worth of shares. Other Taser executives and directors have sold $14 million in stock. Mr. Kerik, the former New York police commissioner and a director, has sold $900,000 in stock. Mr. Kroll of St. Jude Medical has sold $1.7 million.
"It's been great," Patrick Smith said of the company's recent success. But making money is not his main goal, he said. "If we could get a Taser on every officer's belt,'' he said, " it would save hundreds of lives or thousands of lives a year."
Deaths and Questions
Meanwhile, the number of Taser-associated deaths is rising. In June alone, at least six people died, the most ever in one month: Eric B. Christmas, James A. Cobb, Jacob J. Lair, Anthony C. Oliver, Jerry W. Pickens and Mr. Lieberman.
The circumstances of the deaths vary widely. Among the six, Mr. Pickens was the only one hit with the X26.
Mr. Cobb fought for several minutes after being shocked, which suggests that fibrillation could not have caused his death. Some of the other men collapsed immediately, according to news reports and witnesses. Some of the men were fighting with the police when officers shot them. Others simply refused to obey orders.
Mr. Pickens was one. On June 4, in Bridge City, La., the police were summoned to help calm him after an argument with his 18-year-old son, Taylor Pickens. Jerry Pickens confronted the police in the family's front yard.
"My dad, he had been drinking, and he was kind of hostile toward the police,'' Taylor said. "He kept trying to go back inside the house, and they said, 'If you're going to go back into the house we're going to Taser you.' " Mr. Pickens who was unarmed, began to walk inside, Taylor said.
"They counted down three, and then they shot him in the back," Taylor said. "My dad stiffened up, and fell back." Mr. Pickens hit his head on a cement walkway and began foaming at the mouth, Taylor said.
Sharon Landis, Taylor's mother and Mr. Pickens's wife, said officers did not need to shock her husband. "They could have pepper-sprayed him, they could have grabbed him," she said. "He's 55 years old, and these are big burly cops."
Mr. Pickens was pronounced brain-dead that day and removed from life support three days later, Ms. Landis said.
Toxicologic tests on Mr. Pickens are being conducted, said Gayle Day of the Jefferson Parish coroner's office. A spokesman for the sheriff's office said he could not comment on a continuing investigation. Mr. Smith said he could not comment on Mr. Pickens's death.
Three weeks later, Kris Lieberman died in Pennsylvania. The officers who shocked him were the only witnesses to his death, which the Pennsylvania State Police are investigating. But Mr. Lieberman's parents said the state police told them that their son was shocked twice and collapsed afterward. [Stan Coopersmith, chief of the Bushkill Township Police, whose officers responded to the call, said he could not comment on the incident until the state police finish their investigation.] But Taser said that the police chief had told the company that Mr. Lieberman fought briefly after the shocks and that an automatic defibrillator used by the officers indicated Mr. Lieberman was not fibrillating when he collapsed.
"I would suspect the autopsy will find a cause of death that does not include the Taser," Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Lieberman's parents say that he was troubled but that he did not use drugs. Police officers searched Mr. Lieberman's home after the shooting and did not find drugs, his parents say. Toxicologic tests are pending, the Northampton County Coroner said.
Mr. Lieberman's father, Richard, a plain-spoken farmer, said he had not decided whether to hire a lawyer. He simply wants to know if the gun caused his son's death. "If he was the problem, we have to accept it," Mr. Lieberman said. "If they were the problem, they have to accept it."
Eric Dash contributed reporting from New York for this article.