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Friday, March 24, 2006

Coroners must be free to cite Taser use

March 24, 2006
Mercury News

Tasers may or may not cause or contribute to the deaths of hyper-tense, psychotic or drug-addicted individuals -- The evidence is inconclusive.

That's all the more reason for the coroner's offices in Santa Clara County and elsewhere to consider Tasers among the factors they study when doing autopsies. Their statistics will help scientists and guide police departments' policies on Taser use.

But to get to the truth on Tasers, coroners must be able to do their work without political interference. Their autonomy must be sacrosanct.

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith raised red flags last week when she charged that the San Jose police had tried to pressure the coroner not to cite Tasers as a factor in deaths in custody. The police denied that's what they tried to do.

Mercury News writer Sean Webby reported the disagreement, which occurred at an apparently prickly meeting that the police requested after the coroner listed Tasers as a contributing factor in a death.

We weren't there, so we don't know whether the coroner and the sheriff's officers were too defensive or whether San Jose police officers were too pushy. Smith has not brought up the issue with San Jose Chief Rob Davis.

The case involved the death of Angel Rios, a 330-pound man who violently fought the police after a domestic dispute. In subduing him, the police used batons and pepper spray, then twice stunned him with Tasers. He died shortly afterward.

Dr. Christopher Happy, a pathologist, ruled that heart failure was the main cause of death. But he also listed the use of Tasers and pepper spray as contributory causes, along with obesity, heart disease and chronic drug abuse: Rios, 38, had cocaine in his system.

Happy acknowledged in the autopsy that there is no scientific evidence showing that Tasers cause death, so the San Jose police had reason to ask him to explain his ruling. But Happy is not alone is suspecting a link between Taser strikes and arrhythmia leading to death, especially in the presence of other danger factors. Studies cited as proving that Tasers are safe have not taken these factors into account.

The Arizona Republic reported last month that medical examiners in the United States and Canada formally cited Tasers as a cause, a contributing factor or possible factor in 27 deaths since 1999 -- out of 167 instances in which people have died after being struck by Tasers. That's about 16 percent.

Tasers, which emit 50,000 volts for five-second bursts, can be an effective means of restraint with no lasting effects. As an alternative to undeniably lethal force, such as gunfire, Tasers can save lives.

But Tasers appear to be hazardous for some high-risk individuals. Rios fit that profile. The coroner's job is to point that out and to keep records that could provide a definitive answer.

Medical examiners walk uneasy path

March 24, 2006
Jacob Quinn Sanders, The Portland Tribune

Charged with determining a cause of death for the man who died Monday after being shocked with a Portland police Taser, the Oregon state medical examiner’s office finds itself in a potentially sticky situation.

The Oregon State Police funds the office, making it the rare governmental medical authority whose budget depends on a law-enforcement agency. Former medical examiner’s office officials said that relationship can skew how doctors in the office make cause-of-death decisions in cases that involve police, who have an interest in limiting legal liability.

And medical examiners in other states said Taser International, the Arizona-based maker of the stun gun that may have contributed to Monday’s death, has in the past sued and otherwise pressured officials who listed their product as even a contributing cause of death.

Timothy Grant, 46, died Monday afternoon after he acted delirious, ran into traffic and engaged cops in what the Portland Police Bureau said was a struggle in the street near Northeast 23rd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard. An officer shocked him twice with a Taser. Grant lost consciousness and died while receiving medical attention from paramedics a half-hour later.

Grant’s death is the second in Oregon following a police Taser shock where no other weapon was involved. The first also occurred this year: Southern Oregon University triple-jumper Nicholas Hanson, 24, died Jan. 22 after Ashland police shocked him after he threatened suicide. His official cause of death was a drug overdose, authorities said.

The medical examiner’s office is generally called in to determine a cause of death in homicides, suspicious deaths, deaths from accidents and deaths involving police officers. And the office can come under tremendous pressure to make a particular finding.

Glenn Rudner worked as a forensic pathologist in the Oregon medical examiner’s office for 13 months in 2003 and 2004 before its chief, Karen Gunson, fired him. According to what medical examiner’s officials have said in court records, police complained that he was uncooperative, refusing to let them observe or ask questions during autopsies and declining to testify before grand juries, even though it was part of his job.

“It’s a corrupt system,” Rudner said. “It’s a huge conflict of interest for a police agency to fund what is supposed to be an independent office. There is always pressure from law enforcement. They don’t want to get sued because of one of our decisions.”

William Brady, Oregon state medical examiner from 1969 to 1985, who now works as an expert witness for plaintiffs’ lawyers, said the concern is valid.

“The pressures are real in (medical examiner’s) offices around the country, and how the offices react to those pressures varies widely,” he said.

If a Taser shock aggravated a pre-existing condition, he said, then the cause falls into a “gray area” that makes it “easy to go one way,” meaning finding no fault with police actions.

As for whether liability issues could affect an autopsy outcome, he said, “I wonder, too. É I think that’s a very strong argument for an independent medical examiner’s program.”

He expressed confidence, however, in the expertise of the Oregon medical examiner’s office.

Eugene Gray, the forensic administrator who runs business operations for the state medical examiner’s office and deals most directly with the Oregon State Police, called statements about outside pressure “ludicrous.”

“We come up with the manner and cause of death, not the police,” he said. “A death certificate is a physician’s medical opinion. Unfortunately, in Oregon, this is a question that comes up, but there is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between our findings and any preference the police have.”

Gunson, the Oregon state medical examiner, said she felt no outside pressure Ñ evidenced, she said, by her expediting a toxicology report on Grant’s body, which she hopes to receive next week.

“I want to know what’s going on,” she said.

Officers now on leave
Before the Police Bureau distributed Tasers to all patrol officers last year, Chief Derrick Foxworth said they would help save money. Officers who might otherwise have been injured in a fight with a suspect would not with a Taser, he said. And officers who use a Taser instead of their 9 mm Glock handguns are less likely to be placed on administrative leave during a subsequent bureau investigation.

Officer Paul Park, 35, who hit Grant twice with his Taser in the neck and back, was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation. His two cover officers, Ney Phothivongsa, 34, and Rodney Murdock, 37, also were placed on leave.

Foxworth is in Virginia at a training session and was unavailable for comment.

Park used his Taser on Grant in “drive-stun” mode, police said, meaning he jammed the weapon into Grant instead of firing darts from up to 21 feet away. The Taser delivers a 50,000-volt shock, seizing muscles and dropping a suspect to the ground.

Drive-stun is more controversial than the darts, in part because Taser International’s own training materials note that “if only the stun mode is used, (the Taser) becomes a pain compliance technique” rather than a self-defense tool.

Sgt. Bob Day of the Police Bureau’s Training Division, who oversees Portland police Taser use, said cops have used those weapons about 1,000 times since the start of June 2005. Of those, officers used darts 213 times and drive-stunned suspects 100 times, though there are occasions when cops used both. In the rest of the incidents, officers merely pointed their Tasers at suspects but did not use them.

The city’s Independent Police Review Division has logged 31 citizen complaints of police Taser use since 2002. The complaints ranged from fear an officer would use a Taser to lingering, persistent pain after being shocked.

After Grant’s death, Detective Paul Dolbey, a spokesman, was careful to note that only a trained medical professional could determine a cause of death.

“But there is no reason to believe it was due to the Taser,” he said.

In an e-mail later to reporters, he made a passing reference to “excited delirium,” a controversial factor that some medical examiners list in Taser-case autopsies that is often reliant on the presence of drug use or heart disease. It is not a recognized diagnosis of the American Medical Association.

A spokesman for Taser International, Steve Tuttle, did not consent to an interview, instead e-mailing a statement to the Portland Tribune.

“Until all the facts surrounding this tragic incident are known,” Tuttle wrote, “it is inappropriate to jump to conclusions on the cause of Mr. Grant’s death.”

The Oregon medical examiner’s office has not yet released a cause of death, preferring to wait for toxicology results, Gunson said.

One of a few
Oregon is one of a handful of states that have coroners or medical examiners funded by a law-enforcement agency. Oregon’s office has a budget of $4.2 million, which pays for four forensic pathologists, two medical transcriptionists, one morgue attendant and one administrator. The state medical examiner, Gunson, also appoints deputy medical examiners in larger Oregon counties who are paid by the local county government. The deputies are generally not involved in suspicious, controversial or police-involved deaths.

Of 30,000 deaths a year in Oregon, the state medical examiner’s office investigates and signs death certificates for about 3,600, Gray said.

Grant’s is one of those.

Spencer Neal, a lawyer with a long record of suing Portland cops, said a medical examiner’s finding that the Taser is at fault would likely affect liability for the Police Bureau.

“That’s certainly going to be helpful” for anyone suing over a Taser-related death, he said.

But he said he was confident in the integrity of the medical examiner’s office.

“My limited experience with the M.E.s is you can’t buy them off,” he said.

Beyond the issues surrounding the medical examiner, however, is Taser International.

About 165 police agencies in Oregon supply their officers with Tasers, Tuttle wrote in his e-mail, as do some 8,750 agencies worldwide.

The company sued Roland Kohr, an Indiana regional medical examiner, in 2004, after he appeared on CBS’ “The Early Show” to discuss an autopsy in which Kohr considered the Taser to be a contributing cause of death.

“They filed suit two days before Christmas,” Kohr said. “Ho, ho, ho.”

Kohr said he felt targeted because of his ruling in that death.

“I’m nobody,” he said. “I’m out here in the middle of the country and they came after me like that. Makes you think about why they might do that.”

And Charlie Boseman, a deputy coroner in Anderson County, S.C., told the Arizona Republic newspaper in 2004 that Taser International pressured his office to reverse its ruling that a Taser contributed to a death. Company officials denied pressuring Boseman.

The Republic has documented 140 deaths following police Taser use in the United States and Canada since 1999. In Chicago in February 2005, a medical examiner reported a Taser as the primary cause of a death Ñ the first time that had happened.

Amnesty International studied 74 deaths that followed law-enforcement Taser use, finding in 2004 that only 11 of the suspects were armed and that police routinely used Tasers on people who did not or, because of mental illness, could not follow their commands.

Taser International is adamant that its product is safe, Tuttle wrote.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Stun gun makers sue experts over safety criticisms

March 9, 2006
James Randerson, The Guardian

The company that manufactures the stun guns used by police is suing two technical experts who claim that the weapons can kill, in a move which some scientists say is intimidation.

The electric Taser guns, which use a 50,000-volt shock to incapacitate suspects, were adopted by police across the country in 2004.

The weapons are marketed as "non-lethal", but critics disagree. Since 1999 about 120 deaths have been linked to the weapon's use worldwide, but the manufacturer, Taser International, says that in all cases other factors were the cause.

Currently 28 out of 43 police forces in England and Wales and four of eight Scottish forces use the stun guns. Between April 2003 and January this year they have been fired 97 times by English officers.

The company is suing two scientists who have raised safety concerns. "[The company has] a lot of money and they are playing hardball," said forensic engineer Peter Alexander, secretary of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) engineering section. The company denies it is trying to silence legitimate criticism.

Both men facing legal action say they have been putting forward legitimate technical arguments, and that the company is using the courts to extinguish dissent. One of the defendants, Roland Kohr, is a forensic pathologist and medical examiner for Vigo County, Indiana. He performed an autopsy on James Borden, who died after being "Tased" six times while in police custody in November 2003. Dr Kohr concluded that the electric shock had contributed to Mr Borden's death.

Last month, Dr Kohr was due to speak on Tasers at the AAFS annual meeting in Seattle, the premier international meeting for forensic experts, but following legal action by Taser International, his lawyers advised him to pull out.

"In essence I am being sued for giving my opinion," Dr Kohr said. "Draw your own conclusions as to the timing of this. Maybe their whole intent was to prevent me from speaking at this meeting." Thomas Bohan, of MTC Forensics in Maine, said even if Dr Kohr was wrong, his evidence should be heard: "When medical examiners rightly or wrongly make a judgment in a case, they should be able to do that without the threat of legal action."

Taser International is also suing James Ruggieri, a certified professional engineer from Virginia. The action was initiated just before publication of a paper last year in a peer-reviewed journal. This argued that the Taser's power output is higher, and therefore more dangerous, than the company claims. He had also been intending to speak in Seattle, but pulled out.

Rick Smith, CEO of Taser International in Scotsdale, Arizona, said: "We did not sue Dr Kohr because of his medical opinion." He claims both men are part of an organised campaign which is advancing "wildly flagrant and defamatory" claims about stun weapon safety and that Mr Ruggieri does not have the necessary technical expertise to evaluate the device. Dr Kohr denied any knowledge of an organised campaign.

Mr Smith says there is no evidence that Tasers can kill, but added that they are not risk-free. To properly assess the risks, he said, the stun guns should be compared with alternatives such as pepper spray, batons and firearms. The company has documented more than 900 "saves" in which a suspect was subdued safely using a Taser, rather than being shot.

British police use them only as an alternative to firearms, but Angela Wright of Amnesty International said Taser International was lobbying the government to extend this. "It is in their interests to see it used as widely as possible," she said.

One case study presented in Seattle suggested that Tasers can kill healthy subjects. Amy Sheil at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, described the death of a fit, 28-year-old black prisoner who had attacked prison guards with a pencil. The man was "Tased" six times, culminating in a 169-second bout of electricity. "This is a very long duration," she said, concluding that the Taser had stopped his heart.

Mark Kroll, a cardiologist on Taser International's scientific advisory board, rejects Dr Shiel's verdict, claiming a Taser shot is simply not powerful enough. "The safety factors are enormous," he said.

He pointed out that an independent study by the UK police scientific development branch last year concluded that it was unlikely Tasers could influence the electrical functioning of the heart in healthy people.