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Sunday, July 31, 2005

Company: Taser can be lethal

July 31, 2005
Lateef Mungin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Multiple shocks with a Taser could impair breathing and even lead to death, the stun gun's manufacturer says in a new warning to law enforcement agencies. The three-page bulletin, posted on the Taser International Inc. Web site and e-mailed to the company's 19,500 certified trainers, contradicts past statements the company has made to the public and law enforcement, as well as its own training manual, last issued in November 2004.

In fact, the 239-page training manual issued by the Arizona-based company contained its own contradictions, both urging officers to use multiple shocks to subdue unruly suspects and warning against it.

"This is a much stronger emphasis than they had before," Duluth police Maj. Don Woodruff, a certified Taser instructor, said of the new bulletin. "In the past they just told us that if you have a guy who is not compliant, just stun him again. There wasn't that much talk about the health effects."

The company's warning stops short of linking the Taser to the more than 100 people who have died since 2001 after being shocked. Multiple shocks were administered in many of these deaths, including those of two men in Gwinnett County, each of whom died after being shocked at least three times with a Taser.

The Taser, marketed as a nonlethal weapon, is used by about 7,000 domestic law enforcement agencies, including 217 in Georgia, according to Taser International.

The company's president and founder, Tom Smith, said the warning, posted on the Web site June 28, was nothing new. He described it as updating statements the company had made in its training manuals.

"We are just being more specific than we were before," Smith said.

The 2004 Taser training manual did warn police against multiple blasts of the Taser — once, on page 158. But that warning is contradicted at least three times in the same manual, including on page 157, where Taser users are instructed to use multiple shocks on subjects.

"The students should anticipate using additional cycles to subdue suspects," it reads. "[The first] cycle changes the behavior, and the subsequent cycles allow for apprehension in most cases."

The training manual also stated that multiple blasts of the Taser occurred in 32 percent of the incidents police had reported to Taser International.

The new bulletin, beyond warning officers three times that repeated Taser shocks can impair breathing and lead to death, also describes specific injuries that could result from multiple or prolonged use of the 50,000-volt stun gun.

It said multiple shocks could also cause strong muscle contractions that could cause injuries to "tissues, organs, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, joints and stress/compression fractures to bones." It also contained various other recommended safety measures, such as not aiming the weapon at a suspect's eyes.

The company has been buffeted by more than 20 lawsuits, including some filed by police officers who say they were hurt while training with Tasers. Taser sales and the company's stock have declined steadily as the death toll, now at 103 according to Amnesty International, has risen.

A major part of Taser's defense for years has been that a medical examiner has never named the weapon as a cause of death. That changed last week when a Chicago coroner named the Taser as the primary cause of a jailed prisoner's death.

In the Chicago case, police Tasered a suspect two times and one of the blasts was prolonged — 57 seconds. The company counsels against both multiple and prolonged shocks in the new bulletin.

Too late?

The new warning will undoubtedly prompt some police agencies to question the safety of Tasers, said Illinois attorney Paul Geller, who recently filed a class action against the company alleging Taser overstated the guns' safety.

"It seems that Taser is finally attempting to change its position on the safety of the weapons," said Geller, who represents the Dolton, Ill., Police Department. "But they should have made these statements earlier. We still have a situation where police departments were misled to believe that this weapon is safe when it is not."

Taser International has staunchly defended its weapons, stating that the guns have been used safely by law enforcement officers in the field more than 45,000 times since 1999.

Overall, they have been used safely more than 100,000 times, including demonstration firings, the company said.

The company's medical research finds that the weapons "generally" do not cause death, according to the new warning. But the document advises police to seek to control an unruly suspect immediately after the first blast rather than using the weapon again.

Some police departments are heeding the new warning.

"When our next class begins, our training will be modified," said Gwinnett police spokesman Darren Moloney, who said the department would make an effort to minimize multiple shocks.

"One of the changes in policy is that when an officer is deploying the Taser, and there are other officers present to assist, the subject will be restrained and handcuffed during the Tasing process."

No quick reaction

At least one metro Atlanta police department said it was not aware of the warning.

"We are unfamiliar with this warning and will have to research it," said Henry County police Lt. Jason Bolton.

Several other agencies, including the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, either declined to comment or did not respond to inquiries. The Gwinnett Sheriff's Department changed its Taser policy after the latest death of a suspect subdued at the county jail — its second such case.

The new policy forbids Gwinnett deputies from placing the stun gun directly on the body of a handcuffed inmate and shocking him if there are enough deputies to restrain the prisoner.

The Georgia State Patrol is aware of the new warning bulletin and may change its Taser policy, said Gordy Wright, a spokesman for the agency, which has 200 Tasers.

"But it is really not an issue with us," Wright said. "Most of the time in our cases, the subject is compliant right after the first Tasing."

Police should avoid multiple blasts of the Taser "to minimize the potential for overexertion of the subject," according to the new warning. In addition, extended Taser shocks can harm people who are suffering from "excited delirium," the bulletin states.

"Excited delirium is a potentially fatal condition caused by a complex set of physiological conditions," according to the warning. "These subjects are at significant and potentially fatal health risks from further prolonged exertion and/or impaired breathing."

Excited delirium was named as the cause of death in 18 Taser-related cases, according to Amnesty International. Sometimes seen in drug abusers, those experiencing excited delirium often display erratic behavior and almost superhuman strength, medical experts say.

Less force better

Smith, the Taser president, said he did not think the new training bulletin called into question past medical examiners' rulings in which a Taser was ruled out as a contributing factor in a death.

"We were just basically trying to remind police to use the minimal amount of applications needed to control the situation," Smith said.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Taser maker to seek court review of death ruling

July 30, 2005
Frank Main, Chicago Sun-Times

taser shocks ruled cause of death

July 30, 2005
Robert Anglen, The Arizona Republic

Taser shocks ruled cause of death
Company disputes first such finding

A Chicago medical examiner has ruled that shocks from a Taser were responsible for the death of a man in February, marking the first time that the electronic stun gun has been named as the primary cause of death.

This is the latest challenge to Scottsdale-based Taser International's claim that its stun guns have never caused a death or serious injury and comes a week after an Illinois police department filed a class-action lawsuit claiming Taser misled law enforcement agencies about the safety of its weapon.

The death is the 18th case in which a coroner has cited Taser as a factor in someone's death and the fourth case where Taser has been named as a cause of death. But in all of those, Taser was secondary to other factors such as drugs, heart conditions or mental illness.

An autopsy report from the Cook County's Medical Examiner's Office attributed the death of Ronald Hasse, 54, to electrocution from two Taser jolts delivered by a Chicago police officer. The autopsy said methamphetamines contributed to Hasse's death.

Taser strongly criticized the Medical Examiner's Office in a statement Friday and said it will challenge the autopsy.

"We believe that the scientific and medical community will publicly challenge this conclusion based upon the lack of credible evidence," Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle wrote in an e-mail on Friday. "Taser International will seek a judicial review of the report and the basis for which those statements were made."

This is not the first time Taser has challenged a medical examiner. For years, Taser officials publicly said the stun gun was never cited in an autopsy report. But an Arizona Republic investigation last year revealed that Tasers have been cited repeatedly by medical examiners in death cases and that Taser did not start collecting autopsy reports until last April.

Taser officials later maintained that the medical examiners in those cases were wrong and did not have the credentials or expertise necessary to examine deaths involving stun guns. They now maintain that Tasers have never been cited by a medical examiner as "the sole cause of death."

The Republic has identified 140 cases of death in the United States and Canada following a police Taser shock since 1999. Of those, coroners said, Taser was a cause of death in four cases and a contributing factor in 10 cases. In four other cases, medical examiners said Taser could not be ruled out as a cause of death.

In his e-mail on Friday, Tuttle said Hasse's death should likely have been blamed on the methamphetamines.

"We sincerely hope that a groundless opinion will not overshadow the medical and scientific community's conclusions as to the lethal levels of methamphetamine use," he said in the statement. "Overlooking this as a primary cause of death contradicts the very nature and purpose of these known lethal values."

Cook County Deputy Medical Examiner Scott Denton said that drugs alone would not have caused Hasse's death. A five-second shock followed by a 57-second shock pushed Hasse "over the edge," Denton told the Chicago Sun-Times.

"That's extraordinary," Denton said. "He became unresponsive and died after this."

Hasse, a former securities trader who was supposed to go on trial in June in the burial of a body on an Indiana farm, confronted officers in a Chicago high-rise.

Police said they used the Taser on Hasse when he tried to kick and bite officers during a struggle. He also threatened to infect paramedics with HIV.

After Hasse's death, Chicago police halted plans for a Taser expansion. Denton told the Sun-Times that police should stop using Tasers on people who are acting psychotic or appear to be under the influence of drugs.

Denton, who grew up in Scottsdale, did not return The Republic's calls for an interview on Friday. According to a Web site for the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association, Denton has worked at the Office of the Medical Examiner of Cook County for nine years. He is also an assistant professor in the pathology department at Rush University Medical Center. He got his medical degree from the University of Arizona.

Denton told the Sun-Times that he reviewed thousands of pages of information provided by Taser. But he said his conclusion was also based on the findings of James Ruggieri, an electrical engineer who in February made a presentation to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in which he said Taser shocks could cause cardiac arrest.

Ruggieri, who is a forensic engineer and has consulted with police departments and the military on electrical accidents, said shocks from Taser could cause delayed ventricular fibrillation, the irregular heartbeat characteristic of a heart attack. He also said that multiple shocks from a Taser could cause someone to stop breathing and go into cardiac arrest. He said that many deaths involving Tasers have likely been wrongly dismissed as simple heart attacks or drug overdoses.

Taser has challenged Ruggieri's credentials and said its own medical and electrical experts dispute his findings. Taser maintains that its guns have undergone dozens of tests through universities and the Department of Defense, which support its claim of safety.

Tuttle said Friday that Denton should not have relied on "an unsubstantiated theoretical position of electrical safety as presented by James Ruggieri."

Ruggieri said that he doesn't know Denton. He said the doctor contacted him once in February to get a copy of his academy presentation. But Ruggieri said Friday that he is not surprised by the medical examiner's conclusion.

"It was only a matter of time," he said. "All of the impartial people - doctors, scientists, pathologists - took heed of this. They now have had facts to look at when presented with death cases involving Taser."

Taser, in a June 28 training bulletin, 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."

In training classes and instruction manuals, Taser has previously told police to use repeated shocks to control a suspect.

The stun guns have been sold to more than 7,000 law enforcement agencies in the country and are credited with reducing injuries and deaths to suspects and officers and lowering the number of police shootings. But several law enforcement agencies, including the department in Birmingham, Ala., and the Lucas County (Ohio) Sheriff's Office, have pulled the guns from the street.

Last week, Dolton, Ill., filed a class-action lawsuit against Taser, becoming the first police department to take legal action over what it described as Taser's exaggerated claims of safety. The city said it paid $8,572 for stun guns that are too dangerous to use on the street.

Taser stock, which soared last year, dropped by a third this year after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona Attorney General's Office announced separate inquiries into the company's claims of safety.

The price of Taser stock was down about 26 cents on Friday, to $9.72 per share.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Taser Killed Man, Pathologist Finds

July 29, 2005
Frank Main, Chicago Sun-Times

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Taser faces class-action lawsuit

July 21, 2005
Robert Anglen, The Arizona Republic

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Taser International, alleging that the company misled police departments across the country about the safety of its stun guns and left them with weapons that are too dangerous to use on the street.

The suit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Chicago, alleges the weapon has not been adequately tested and was sold to police through faulty marketing information.

The suit is filed on behalf of Dolton, Ill., a Chicago suburb with a population of 35,000.

The plaintiff's lawyer, Paul Geller, claims that police departments in four states have retained his firm for the lawsuit but would drop the suit if Taser would take back the guns.

"That's what we want. Take back your product and give back our money," Geller said in an interview from his office in Boca Raton, Fla.

This is the first known lawsuit by a city or police department challenging Taser's statements about the science and safety of the stun guns. It comes amid a growing number of deaths after Taser shocks that have left cities across the country rethinking stun-gun purchases.

Taser did not respond to specific questions about the lawsuit. Taser vice president and general counsel Doug Klint issued a statement via e-mail denouncing the suit and saying the company stands by the safety of its stun gun.

"The claims made in the lawsuit are based on inaccurate and incomplete news clippings rather than independent review and scientific fact," Klint said. "To date there have been dozens of independent studies conducted by leading medical and law-enforcement experts, the U.S. Department of Defense, the United Kingdom Home Office and other countries each of which support Taser technology's safety and effectiveness relative to other use-of-force alternatives."

More than 7,000 law-enforcement agencies in the United States have armed their officers with Tasers. Police departments, including Phoenix, have praised the stun gun, saying it has reduced injuries to officers and suspects and has led to fewer police shootings.

But Dolton Mayor William Shaw said his police department should not have purchased Tasers.

"Sometimes you make a mistake, and this was a mistake," said Shaw, who is a former Illinois state senator. "The basic problem is they need far more testing than what is out there."

Shaw said he and Police Chief Ronald Burge suspended Taser use in May, a few months after paying $8,572 for the weapons. He said they became concerned after deaths in other cities. Shaw pointed to cases in Chicago and Birmingham, Ala., whereofficials halted distribution of the guns to officers or pulled them off the street.

He said that $8,572 is a significant amount of money for a city the size of Dolton but far less than the financial risk of a wrongful-death suit.

"One person losing their life could be much, much more expensive," Shaw said.

Taser maintains that its stun guns have never caused a death or serious injury.

An ongoing investigation by The Arizona Republic has identified 140 deaths in the United States and Canada after police Taser shocks since 1999. Of those, medical examiners have cited the Taser in 17 deaths, saying it was a cause of death in three cases and a contributing factor in 10 others. In four cases, medical examiners said the stun gun could not be ruled out as a cause of death.

"My view is that the police want to know what are the safety parameters," Geller said. "We view our lawsuit to be very, very supportive of police."

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Wife turned to police to help husband

July 20, 2005
CBC News

A Digby woman whose husband died in police custody says she had asked the RCMP to arrest him so he could get treatment for his mental disorder.

Helen Saulnier says her husband Paul was in Yarmouth Regional Hospital twice in the last two years for psychiatric evaluations, but his condition got worse each time he left the hospital.

After the second time, she filed a harassment complaint against him with the police.

"I did speak to the police [Friday] and it was something I did not really want to talk to them about. But I felt that it is something that, in order to get him into the hospital, that this is something that had to be done," Saulnier said.

While Paul Saulnier was being arrested at the RCMP detachment in Digby, he tried to escape. He died after officers subdued him with pepper spray, a baton and a Taser gun.

Carol Tooton, with the Canadian Mental Health Association, said she doesn't know much about this incident, but trying to force people to stay on their medication often causes problems.

"As much as we'd like to say, 'Yes, stay on your medication and everything will be all right,' often times that's never going to be the reality. And I think we're going to have to be prepared to accept the choices that some people make," Tooton said.

Better community programs to support people with mental illness are needed, she said.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Man dead after being tasered

July 4, 2005
Brooke Larsen, Now Contributor

"I just can't believe how many officers came - at least 10 or 12. They didn't need to storm the house like that. He was just a tiny man," said Nicole Saville.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Break-in suspect dies shortly after being shot by stun gun

July 2, 2005

ONLY A few days after Niagara police front-line supervisors were issued Tasers, a man died yesterday shortly after being shot with one.

"They told me he went into a house and all that, but they also said they used that Taser gun on him," Apat Foldi, the father of James Foldi, 39, said.

"He was going around in circles and the police didn't want to go near him. So they used this gun on him and boom -- done."

Niagara police said they were called out to Beamsville around 2:30 a.m. after several complaints of a man breaking into homes.

They said they tracked down a suspect in the area and arrested him, then noticed right away he needed medical attention

He was taken to West Lincoln hospital and pronounced dead.

The province's Special Investigations Unit confirmed a Taser was used on Foldi.

"An autopsy is being held as we speak and the pathologist is determining what the cause of death is -- we'll go from there," SIU spokesman Rose Bliss said.

"Obviously, it's also important to note the Taser is an approved, less-than-lethal-use-of-force weapon that the police are authorized to use."

Apat Foldi said he last spoke to his son on Tuesday.

"He was fine, everything was no problem," he said.

He acknowledged his son did have problems with drugs and alcohol and wondered whether that may have played a role.

"They test them on normal people. They don't test people on alcohol or drugs to see if it works on them," Foldi said.

"If someone's drunk or on drugs and they use it on them, maybe it kills them."

However, Foldi stressed he didn't know many details of what happened and was waiting to see the result of the investigation before he came to any conclusion.

"I have to wait to see what's coming out of it," he said.

Niagara cops announced May 13 that front-line supervisors would begin carrying Tasers on routine patrol starting in the last week of June.

Members of Niagara's Emergency Response Unit also carry the weapons, as do tactical teams in Toronto, Peel and Durham.

At least nine people have died after being hit with Tasers in Canada since the weapon was approved.

Alternative to taser needed, coroner says

July 2, 2005

VANCOUVER -- The death of a fifth person in B.C. after being shocked with a taser means that police and the medical community need to look for other ways to deal with a condition known as "excited delirium," the province's chief coroner says.

Some thrashing, violent people have elevated hormone levels that put them at risk no matter what type of restraint -- handcuffs, pepper spray, or electrical shock -- police use to subdue them, Terry Smith said yesterday.

"It's a medical emergency, in the truest sense of the word," he said. "Do we need to look at the taser? Absolutely. Certainly, nobody's going to dismiss the fact that we need to determine what the physiological impact, if any, of the taser is.

"But whether you put that person [who is in a state of excited delirium] in handcuffs or you put them in a straitjacket and strap them to a gurney, there's a high probability of negative outcome, even death."

Early Thursday, 41-year-old Gurmeet Sandhu was shocked with up to 50,000 volts from a taser in an altercation with the RCMP outside his Surrey home.

His wife told reporters that her husband was shocked multiple times, while the Surrey RCMP say they are waiting for their investigation to finish before the circumstances of the death can be confirmed.

Mr. Sandhu died two weeks after the Victoria police department released a long-awaited report on taser use. It had been commissioned in response to the death of Robert Bagnell in his Granville Street hotel room after he was subdued with a taser in June of 2003.

The report said police should get more training on taser use, deploy the weapon only when people are actively resisting arrest or posing a threat to others, and that the device shouldn't be used multiple times.

The report also said a person shocked by a taser should be restrained in a way that allows them to breathe easily.

Constable Mark Searle of the Surrey RCMP said he couldn't comment on whether police had followed the report's recommendations. He did say, however, that the attending officer had felt he was in danger and pressed an emergency button to call for help.

"That's a drop-everything call," he said, adding that the officers had gone through their full possible range of options -- using physical force, pepper spray, and finally, the taser weapon -- in attempting to subdue Mr. Sandhu.

Mr. Smith's warning about the use of tasers came on the same day that a man in Beamsville, Ont., died after police used a stun gun in his arrest.

The B.C. Coroner's Office has begun investigating Mr. Sandhu's death, Mr. Smith said. It will perform an autopsy and do toxicology tests to determine the levels of drugs that were in Mr. Sandhu's body. Mr. Smith said he didn't know when the investigation would be complete.

Gannett papers sued by Taser International over stories

July 2, 2005
Robert Anglen, The Arizona Republic

Taser International Inc. filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming that USA Today and The Arizona Republic published inaccurate information about its electric stun gun.

Taser, which is facing inquiries by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona Attorney General's Office over the safety of the weapon, accused the newspapers' parent company, Gannett Co., Inc., of libel, invasion of privacy and damaging its business.

"Over the course of this biased campaign, more than one billion dollars of shareholder value has been erased," Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith said in a statement Friday. "Further, we have reason to believe that some law-enforcement agencies delayed deploying Taser devices based on this false and misleading information."

Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell said the company would study the complaint before it issued a comment.

The focus of the suit is the content of a June 3 USA Today article, which Taser says overstated the electrical output of a Taser stun gun.

USA Today published a correction three days later, saying that "due to a mathematical error, the original version of this story significantly overstated the amount of electricity delivered by a Taser."

Taser also accused The Republic of "unfairly impugning the safety aspects" of Taser and "groundlessly linking" the stun gun to more than 100 deaths.

An ongoing investigation by The Republic has identified 120 people who have died in the United States and Canada since 1999 after a police Taser strike. Of those, medical examiners have cited Taser in 17 deaths.

In autopsy reports, the medical examiners list Taser as a cause of death in three cases and a contributing factor in 10 cases. In four other cases, they could not rule out Taser as a cause of death.