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Friday, December 17, 2004

Tasers Will Save Lives, Deputy Coroner Says

December 17, 2004
By Jeff Gray, The Globe And Mail

Ontario''s deputy chief coroner, James Cairns, urged the Toronto Police Services Board to expand the use of tasers yesterday, saying they had not caused a single death but instead had saved countless lives in police standoffs.

"I am absolutely convinced tasers will save lives instead of taking lives. And I hope some day, if I am in the position, please taser me before you shoot me," Dr. Cairns told the board at its meeting yesterday.

Dr. Cairns, who has closely studied data on at least 50 deaths that have occurred after a taser was used by various police forces, also slammed the board''s recent decision to get the city''s medical officer of health, who specializes in communicable diseases, to rule on the safety of the controversial stun guns.

"If I had SARS, I''d certainly want to see the medical officer of health. I consider this a matter of forensic medicine...We''re the ones that investigate these deaths, " Dr. Cairns said.

Dr. Cairns''s surprise appearance at the board, at the invitation of Police Chief Julian Fantino, who has been pushing or the purchase of more tasers, appeared to catch board chairwoman Pam McConnell off guard.

"I am raising this issue again because I do not want to have the unnecessary death of a mentally ill or emotionally disturbed person on my conscience," Chief Fantino told the board yesterday. "Nor do I want one of our police officers to have to live with the knowledge that he or she had killed someone whose life could have been saved."

Dr. Cairns said his office had amassed mountains of independent data on tasers in the course of investigating three cases in Ontario this year in which people died after being stunned by the devices.

In all of those cases, and in another six across the country, tasers were cleared of causing the deaths, he said. The people who end up on the wrong end of these stun guns, which shoot a barb at the suspect and deliver an electrical jolt through a wire, are often in a state of "excited delirium," Dr. Cairn said.

In this state, caused by psychiatric illness, overdoses of cocaine or other drugs, or alcohol withdrawal, people are "impervious to pain" and immune to other police restraint methods such as pepper spray, he said. They have "unbelievable physical strength" and tend to be paranoid and violent.

If people in this state do not receive immediate medical treatment, they will likely die of a heart attack on their own, Dr. Cairns said. And if the person is armed or is considered a threat, police officers often have little choice but to use bullets. If a taser is on hand, they can be subdued and taken to hospital, he said.

Dr. Cairns dismissed concern expressed in articles in The New York Times and in a report from the human-rights group Amnesty International on tasers, saying the overwhelming evidence, from independent studies in British Columbia, Australia and Britain, is that the risk of death from a taser was extremely low.

Currently, only members of Toronto''s tactical squad are equipped with tasers. Chief Fantino has asked that frontline sergeants be equipped with them, something that is allowed under provincial rules. But the board deferred the decision until April at its last meeting. Dr. Cairns said yesterday that all officers should eventually be given tasers.

After hearing from the deputy chief coroner yesterday, the police board agreed to try to deal with the taser issue next month if possible.

Chief Fantino also presented the board yesterday with a report on a pilot project conducted by his force on a new model of taser, the X-26, which is more effective but uses a lower dose of electricity than the M-26, currently approved for use. The newer stun gun also keeps track each time it is fired, to guard against possible police abuse.

Yesterday, the board unanimously passed a policy forbidding leaders of the police union to endorse political candidates in election campaigns, threatening them with police discipline charges if they do.

Toronto Police Association President Dave Wilson repeated a vow to defy the ban, saying it was meant to "muzzle" his union. "You can charge me when the time comes, and I will fight this policy in the courts," he told the board.

Tasers will save lives, deputy coroner says

December 17, 2004
Jeff Gray, Globe and Mail

Toronto police board urged to buy more stun guns, told medical safety review not needed

After you read the headline story above (Tasers will save lives, deputy coroner says), consider this: Deputy Coroner Dr. Cairns admitted to me in a March 2005 telephone conversation that he had NOT seen autopsy or pathology results on my brother, nor had he seen autopsy or pathology results on any of the other people who had died outside of Ontario, before publicly concluding that tasers had been cleared of causing the deaths. I had heard him say that on CBC's Ontario Today, as Toronto police considered adding more tasers to their arsenal. This was before the cause of death had even been released in many cases. On the telephone, Dr. Cairns said to me: “it is my personal opinion that, unless a person dies immediately after being shot with a Taser – not 5 minutes later, not 30 minutes later, but immediately – then the Taser did not kill them.” I asked Dr. Cairns, on behalf of my family, to please refrain from including my brother’s death in his statistics, until such time as the official cause of death had been released. He did not respect my request. He went on to publicly declare on radio and television and in newspaper reports that:

None of the Taser-related deaths in Canada can be attributed to the Taser stun gun being used;

All of the deaths in Canada were determined to have been caused by cocaine-induced excited delirium;

All of the deaths in Canada were caused by cocaine overdoses;

Tasers have been cleared of causing any of the deaths in Canada; and

All nine (at that time) people would have died anyway.

To date, none of the deaths in Canada for which final results are available has been attributed to the taser (several have in the US). Nor, in the final analysis, was my brother's death. However, I know that Dr. Cairns has been consulted for his opinion on deaths which have occurred in RCMP custody over the last couple of years, including two that I'm aware of: Paul Saulnier in Digby, Nova Scotia and Kevin Geldart in Moncton, New Brunswick. Neither was attributed to the taser. Dr. Cairns has seemingly become Canada's "expert", the "go-to-it-guy" on tasers and their non-relation to the deaths of people. He also makes himself available for speaking engagements at Taser International and excited delirium-related conferences. You can bet that he's received one of the hundreds of pamphlets the weapon's manufacturer mails out to coroners each year to help them identify excited delirium.
See also: Coroner finds man didn't die from taser, where Dr. Cairns said that had Peter Lamonday died in the parking lot where he absorbed the shots, the powerful stun gun could be considered responsible.
See also: How can you justify using a taser 12 times - "After this huge fight that often goes on, they suddenly go quiet and tranquil. It seems as though they're getting a second wind. In fact, they're not. They're dying at that point," says Cairns.
See also: Drugs, not taser, caused Kingston man's death - A mere two days after Samuel Truscott's death, Dr. Cairns was able to "state categorically that the Taser did not play any role whatsoever in his death."
See also: Fantino gets Taser issue revived

Fantino gets taser issue revived

December 17, 2004
Catherine Porter, The Toronto Star

The Toronto Police Services Board will reconsider arming more officers with stun guns after a top forensics expert insisted Tasers can save lives.

Ontario's Deputy Chief Coroner James Cairns told board members that Tasers are typically used to subdue delirious people who could die if not taken to hospital and treated.

Without access to Tasers, police are forced to use guns, as people in such a state are almost superhuman and impervious to pepper spray and clubbing with batons, Cairns said.

"There is evidence that the Taser has definitely saved lives," Cairns told the board, which only last month voted against equipping about 500 more officers with stun guns until further medical research is done.

Board member Alok Mukherjee said he had been "almost convinced" to change his vote on the stun guns, and the board unanimously decideed to readdress the issue again next month, rather than in the spring.

"We all want to save lives," Mukherjee said.

Three months before he's being forced to leave his command, Fantino said he was so shocked by the board's decision on Tasers last month that he was raising the issue again and had asked Cairns to address the board.

"I do not want to have the unnecessary death of a mentally ill or emotionally disturbed person on my conscience," Fantino said. "Nor do I want one of our police officers to have to live with the knowledge that he or she had to kill someone whose life could have been saved."

The Toronto Police Service currently has 24 Tasers, limited to the tactical and emergency-response units. Fantino has requested the board buy 539 more for his front-line supervisors, at a $1.1 million price tag.

The guns are used by police forces across North America to disable aggressive people by shocking them with a current of up to 50,000 volts.

Cairns dismissed Amnesty International Canada's contention that the stun guns have precipitated the deaths of nine Canadians over the past year and a half.

Going one by one through each fatal case, Cairns said they all had been caused by cocaine overdoses. Although the subjects had been shocked with a Taser, the weapon didn't cause the deaths, he said. All nine would have died anyway, he maintained, and in two cases they were almost saved by Tasers, as police could quickly get them to hospital.

"Tasers give a person an electrical shock. People who die from an electrical shock do so immediately," he said, adding that in all cases the victims died hours after being hit with a Taser.

Cairns' report will go to the city's medical officer of health, who has been asked to report back to the board in January. If approved then, Fantino said he was sure he could find $1.1 million in next year's already tight police budget proposal.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Security nominee got rich on tasers - Kerik's relationship with stun-gun firm earned him millions

December 10, 2004
Eric Lipton, New York Times

Washington -- Just five years ago, Bernard Kerik was facing lawsuits from a condominium association and bank over delinquent payments owed on a modest New Jersey condo he then owned. Today, he is a multimillionaire, the result of a lucrative partnership with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and an even more profitable relationship with a stun-gun manufacturer.

If he is confirmed to the post of homeland security secretary for which he was nominated by President Bush last week, he will oversee an enormous department that does business with some of the companies that helped make him wealthy.

The list of income sources that transformed the former New York City police commissioner into a wealthy man is a diverse one, including a best- selling autobiography, speeches around the United States and service on corporate boards. Kerik even sold the rights to make a feature film about his rags-to-riches life to Miramax.

But it is the relationship Kerik has had since the spring of 2002 with Taser International, a Scottsdale, Ariz., manufacturer of stun guns, that has by far been the biggest source of his newfound wealth, earning him more than $6.2 million in pre-tax profits through stock options he was granted and then sold, mostly in the last month.

Kerik benefited largely because the company has enjoyed an extraordinary surge in its stock. Stock options that were worth very little at the time became extremely valuable, in part because of the sales pitch that Kerik made on the company's behalf to other police departments.

The sales driving Taser's growing profits come mostly from local and state governments. But while Kerik has served on the company's board, it has made an aggressive push to enter markets either regulated or controlled by the federal government, most notably the Department of Homeland Security. A White House spokesman said Kerik would resign from the board and sell his remaining stock if confirmed.

At one point, Kerik referred Taser executives, seeking more federal business, to a Customs and Border Protection official of the Homeland Security Department, according to the company president.

"Anyone in a federal law enforcement position is a potential customer," said Thomas Smith, president and co-founder of Taser International, who said he had hired Kerik because of his prominence as New York's police commissioner. "And we are going to continue to go after that business."

Kerik declined, through a spokeswoman, to discuss his work for Taser. Although he is required for at least one year to recuse himself from decisions involving his former clients or partners, that will not prohibit the Homeland Security Department from doing business with those companies. A White House spokesman said Kerik would adhere to "the highest ethical standards" and ensure there are no conflicts of interest.

In 2002, Taser International sought to significantly expand its sales to law enforcement agencies, and it needed a high-profile former public official who could serve as a spokesman for its product, said Smith. Kerik, he added, was the perfect candidate, having served as both corrections and police commissioner. Kerik's role working alongside Giuliani on Sept. 11, 2001, had also earned him a national reputation, particularly in the law enforcement world.

From the moment he joined Taser's board in May 2002, Kerik became one of Taser's chief spokesmen before police officials.

Kerik also defended the guns against criticism that their use had contributed to the deaths of suspects who have been fired upon by police.

Amnesty International said there had been 74 Taser-related deaths in North America since 2001 and called for a suspension on the use of the device until its safety was further investigated. An Air Force laboratory that conducted research on the guns said last month that it could not determine whether they were safe, in contrast to statements from Taser that the laboratory had found its weapons generally safe and effective.

The Taser publicity campaign has been an enormous success. More than 6, 000 police departments and prisons today use Tasers, compared with only a handful five years ago, and Taser International's sales have climbed from $6.9 million in 2001 to about $68 million this year.

Kerik will have to be approved by the Senate before he takes control of the Homeland Security Department. Several members of the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, which must approve his nomination, declined to comment when asked about Kerik's private sector work.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Is 'non-lethal' taser deadly?

December 1, 2004

Willie Smith was high on cocaine the night he pinned his wife down and told her he wanted to get the devil out of her. She broke free, crawled out of their bedroom window and called for help. Auburn police say that when they came and tried to arrest Smith, he resisted. So officers used a Taser, subduing him with 50,000 volts of electricity. When Smith finally emerged from the apartment, he was rolled out on a gurney -- hogtied, face down with his hands and ankles cuffed behind him, his wife said. She could hear him whimpering. The 48-year-old man had a heart attack in the ambulance. He died in the hospital two days later.

Willie Smith was the third person in Washington state to die after being shocked with a Taser. Smith was the third person in Washington to die after being shocked with a Taser; others died in Silverdale and Olympia. Nationwide, there have been 69 such deaths since 2000, raising concerns about a new breed of electric shock devices in widespread use by law enforcement.

In dozens of cases nationwide, autopsies showed the victims died of a heart attack, cocaine intoxication or underlying causes such as heart disease. But autopsies in at least five cases found Tasers were a contributing factor in the deaths.

The company that manufactures Tasers insists they are safe and non-lethal, and some medical professionals think some of the deaths may be the result of a combination of physical restraint and drug-induced agitation. But Amnesty International and other groups say such deaths are troubling and shouldn't be overlooked as more law enforcement officers use Tasers in a wide variety of situations.

In a report issued yesterday, Amnesty International said Tasers couldn't be ruled out as a factor in seven of 74 deaths in the United States and Canada it asked a forensic pathologist to review. That underscores the need to ban such non-lethal weapons until it is known whether they're responsible for the deaths, it said.

Across the country, 6,000 law enforcement agencies have equipped some or all of their officers with the tools. According to the manufacturer, Taser International, Houston police last month placed a $4.7 million order to buy Tasers for all 3,700 of its officers.

Company says they're safe

Taser International, a publicly traded company with nearly $50 million in sales this year, says the devices have never directly caused a death. The company points out that many of the people died hours, even days, after they were shocked, and of other reasons, such as cocaine overdose or heart disease.

Steve Tuttle, a company spokesman, said a study showing Tasers did not cause ventricular fibrillation in 10 pigs has been accepted for publication in Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology, a peer-reviewed journal. The study will be published in January. Ventricular fibrillation is a condition in which the heart's electrical activity becomes disordered, which could lead to cardiac arrest in minutes.

He said the company has offered to provide funding for more medical studies using standards agreed upon with Amnesty International, but that the group has not responded. "We're not saying Tasers kill people," said Mike Murphy, coroner of Clark County, Nev., where two men have died after being shocked by Las Vegas police officers. "We appear to be seeing some issues that need to be addressed."

The Taser was one of several methods used to restrain William Lomax, a 26-year-old who was under the influence of PCP when he fought with security guards and a Las Vegas police officer earlier this year. He died after being handcuffed, shocked several times and held down, Murphy said. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy said the Taser played a role in Lomax's death, but couldn't say how big a role.

The Taser, powered by batteries, fires two darts that hook into a person's skin, then deliver an electrical charge that temporary subdues them. It can also be pressed against a person's body in a stun mode.

Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said an in-custody death isn't unusual, so "it's a huge leap to say the Taser caused the death. It's natural to expect, whether it's a huge ingestion of drugs or alcohol or from some other type of injuries, that there are going to be some deaths that are also associated with Taser use," he said.

Chief Sue Rahr, who has been named to replace King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, said she believes the tools are safe and give officers better options than wrestling or fighting someone with a baton or nightstick. She said she wants every deputy to have one. About 250 of 700 deputies now carry them.

"If there were a case where the Taser was shown as the direct cause of death, absolutely we would reconsider," she said. "But I haven't seen any information that directly correlates the Taser with the death."

But while law enforcement officers have accepted the devices as safe, relatives of those who have died aren't convinced.

"A Taser gun did the same harm that a regular gun would have done," said Tammie Smith, who believes the tool helped bring about her husband's heart attack in July. "I don't understand why he had to be Tasered."

The King County Medical Examiner Office last week ruled the 48-year-old machine operator died of "a combination of acute cocaine intoxication and physical restraint," but declined to offer more details. An inquest into Smith's death is pending.

The Auburn Police Department completed its investigation this week and forwarded the case to the King County Prosecutor's Office, which is standard procedure. Cheryl Price, department spokeswoman, said the investigation was focused on Smith's "felony assault," not any issue with the officers' involvement in his death. "He was resistant to arrest and we utilized different levels of force to subdue him, and he happened to have a cardiac episode," she said. She said she couldn't say why the department was still investigating Smith after his death.

Coroners in the two other Washington fatalities ruled that the Taser did not contribute to the deaths of:

Stephen L. Edwards, 59, of Shelton, who fought with a security guard outside a grocery store before an Olympia police officer arrived and shocked him four times in less than a minute and a half;

Curt Lee Rosentangle, 44, a Silverdale business owner, who was high on cocaine and reportedly pounding on doors at an apartment complex when a Kitsap County sheriff's deputy shocked him at least twice.

Some see deadly combination

Some say that for those already agitated, high on cocaine or other drugs or have existing heart problems, the Taser can inhibit breathing and become lethal. Dr. William Anderson, a private forensic pathologist in Florida, believes those people may be particularly vulnerable. Although the Taser is generally safe for most people, he said, the company hasn't done the scientific study to conclude it's safe for everyone. "If you're in that particular situation at the time you get Tasered, it may be the straw that breaks the camel's back," said Anderson, who added that it can be a good tool.

As deputy medical examiner in Orlando two years ago, he ruled that the Taser contributed to the death of Gordon Jones, who was cocaine-intoxicated when he was Tased multiple times. Another pathologist contradicted Anderson's ruling.

Amnesty International's report raised similar questions about whether the devices could exacerbate breathing difficulties caused by violent exertion, drug overdose or other restraint devices, triggering heart attacks.

A British government report warned "excited, intoxicated individuals or those with pre-existing heart disease could be more prone to adverse effects from the M26 Taser, compared to unimpaired individuals." But it also concluded that the risk of serious injuries was "very low" and it wasn't medically necessary to hold off using them until more was known.

"Testing that we've done hasn't identified any groups of people at risk," said Taser's Tuttle, who added that the company supports continued research on the device. "There's no use of force that's risk-free. But studies continue to show that this is one of the safest uses of force that's out there on the street."

The company has cited both the British report and a report sponsored by the Department of Defense to bolster its claims. In September, the DoD released an abstract of the report concluding that the device "does not appear to pose significant risk" and wasn't the primary cause of reported deaths. It recommended more research into how such tools affect "sensitive populations."

But the Air Force Research Laboratory, which conducted the DoD study, released a statement last week saying the devices could be dangerous in certain circumstances and that there wasn't enough data to evaluate it. The need to rely on case reports from the manufacturer and the lack of laboratory data "generate uncertainty in the results," the report said. "There's a huge gap in the scientific data that has been performed," said Larry Farlow, a spokesman with the Air Force Research Laboratory at Brooks City-Base in San Antonio.

'Very little controlled research'

Kenneth Foster, who was on the independent panel that reviewed the U.S. report, said there is no indication the Taser is unsafe, though there has been "very little controlled research." "If a medical device company wanted to put a device on the market, they have to prove the safety and effectiveness using rigorous tests and to get federal approval," said Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The Taser doesn't have that requirement, so there's been rather little systematic study as far as I can tell."

Yet, he and others say any significant hazard would have been obvious by now, given the thousands of times they've been used.

Although some Taser supporters feel more research is needed, they say Tasers shouldn't be pulled from the streets. Doing so would remove a valuable less-lethal option, they say. "I can't overemphasize (that) the value of the Taser is it allows us to gain control of somebody without injuring them. That's huge," said Rahr, of the Sheriff's Office. "What better way to protect the public than to not have to wrestle with them or hit them with a nightstick or shoot them?"

The company cites animal studies it funded, as well as tests on older versions of electric shock devices, as evidence of the product's safety. In a study in 1996, Dr. Robert Stratbucker shocked an anaesthetized pig 48 times with an older lower-powered Taser and found that it didn't affect the pig's heart.

In a later study at the University of Missouri, he and another researcher, Wayne McDaniel, shocked five dogs 236 times in the chest area with no episodes of ventricular fibrillation. McDaniel later repeated the study on 10 anesthetized pigs, and determined the device could be used safely even at 15 times its standard power.

Kerlikowske said police agencies are left to their own devices when determining the safety of new policing tools, but his agency didn't buy Tasers as a knee-jerk reaction. A citizens group researched the options and compared notes with other police agencies. "There are some departments that have a controversial shooting and, within a month, they buy 500 Tasers and issue it to every officer," he said.
"We went into this as methodically and thoroughly as any agency as I've ever seen."

Taser says the device operates at a fraction of the electricity used to resuscitate heart attack victims -- 1.6 joules. A joule is a unit of energy. "That amount of energy applied to the chest, probably only a fraction ends up going to the heart," said Dr. Peter Kudenchuk, professor of medicine at the University of Washington. "Simply the pain created by a shock of 1.6 joules might make the heart rate faster, but I'd be surprised if much of the energy reaches the heart itself," he said. "In terms of causing a cardiac arrest, the risk is probably low."

Some medical experts believe the common denominator in the publicized deaths is not the Taser, but how officers restrain out-of-control, agitated people. Some of those who died while in custody were hogtied, handcuffed or held down, which compressed their chests and restricted their ability to breathe. A person's delirious, excited state combined with the way he or she is restrained plays a more significant role in a fatal outcome, they say.

In a British Columbia report this fall, a group of medical professionals said the deaths of four people there may have been because the individuals were restrained while in an excited, delirious state and that the Tasers didn't cause their deaths.

Tasers cited in five deaths

But Tasers played a part in at least five deaths nationwide, according to medical authorities. A county coroner in Indiana ruled that electric shock contributed to the death of James Borden, who died in an Indiana jail after being shocked several times while handcuffed. The jail officer faces two counts of felony battery. "People who carry these should be warned," said David Brimm, an attorney representing the Borden family in a wrongful death suit against the county and Taser.

Pathologist Ronald Kohr ruled Borden died of cardiac dysrhythmia, or disorder of the heartbeat. He listed an enlarged heart, pharmacological drug intoxication and electric shock as contributing factors. But a pathologist working for the jail officer's defense, Dr. Cyril Wecht, wrote in a memo that there was no basis to conclude the Taser contributed to Borden's death.

Electric shock was also listed as one of four causes of death for Jacob Lair, a 29-year-old who died last June after a struggle with police officers in Sparks, Nev. The autopsy report said methamphetamines combined with delirium, the Taser and restraint combined to kill him. "There's not a single one of those that you can make the sole cause of death, and not one that you can ignore," Washoe County Coroner Vernon McCarty said of Lair's case.

A coroner in South Carolina also ruled the Taser contributed to the death of William Teasley, who died in August after he was shocked at the county jail. "The Taser gun was a last straw because he was Tased and he collapsed to the floor," said Charlie Boseman, a forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy. Teasley died of cardiac arrhythmia, with the Taser and health problems, including an enlarged heart and heart and liver diseases, contributing. Boseman said two Taser representatives called him and asked him "could we not use the Taser as part of the man's death." "I told them that we could not change the report and leave the Taser out, because the Taser was used to bring the man down to the floor," Boseman said.

Tuttle said the company has never pressured any medical professional to alter a report involving a death in which a Taser was involved. Rather, they called Boseman's office to offer technical information on Tasers that the pathologist requested, he said.

Smith, who has been waiting for her husband's death certificate, is convinced the shock played a role in her husband's death. She said she hoped police would "take responsibility for their part in it."