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Monday, November 27, 2006

Abuses aside, taser guns save lives

November 27, 2006
Rosie DiManno, The Toronto Star

"Dr. Jim Cairns, the province's deputy coroner, gave evidence in support of Taser use at the inquest. It was Cairns who, as consultant to the province and the Toronto Police Services Board, reviewed Taser incidents, concluding that the 14 Canadian deaths — four of them in Ontario — had been caused by drug overdoses, with excited delirium implicated, and not the electric jolt administered. Tasers were not even a contributing factor, the veteran coroner determined. "If you die from electric shock, from a Taser, you die within seconds," Cairns told the Toronto Star yesterday. "You don't die five minutes later or 10 minutes later." The Toronto Police Services Board reversed its original opposition to Tasers, largely because of the persuasive findings presented to them by Cairns."

My brother died about two minutes after being tasered - does that count, Dr. Cairns?

Peter Rosenthal, lawyer for the Vass family, was quoted in another article in the Toronto Star as saying that, at the Vass inquest, "excited delirium was pushed on the jurors who couldn’t quite resist all that pressure.”

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Arrested for Epilepsy - When a Seizure Gets You Thrown in Jail

November 23, 2006
By JIM AVILA and LARA SETRAKIAN, ABC News Law & Justice Unit

Roughly 3 million Americans live with epilepsy. And a surprising number of them go to jail for it.

Why? Around the country, police officers and bystanders who see someone having a seizure mistake it for disorderly, criminal behavior.

That's what happened to Daniel Beloungea of Pontiac, Mich. On most days Daniel lives the normal life of a 48-year-old single man. But roughly once a week, he loses total control of his body and mind to an epileptic seizure.

A seizure took over Beloungea's body while walking through his suburban Detroit neighborhood last April. When an onlooker in a neighbor's house saw Beloungea having the seizure, which includes rapid repetitive arm motion, she misinterpreted it as criminal conduct. Specifically, she thought Beloungea was masturbating in public.

With that misconception in mind, she called the police. When the Oakland County Sheriff's Department arrived on the scene, Beloungea was still undergoing his seizure, acting disoriented and not responding to questions.

When officers couldn't get through to Beloungea they drew their weapons, shocked him with a high-voltage taser, hit him with a baton and wrestled him to the ground. They then handcuffed him and put him in a police car.

Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe said that the officers tasered Beloungea because he lunged at one of them. Beloungea and his lawyer say the more police got physical the more Beloungea got agitated and aggressive -- typical behavior, according to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, for a person restrained while having a partial complex seizure. Beloungea's wild motions and inability to communicate were not defiance or resistance, but classic symptoms of epilepsy

The officers put Beloungea in jail, citing assault of a police officer and resisting arrest. Throughout the incident Beloungea, was wearing a medical alert bracelet identifying him as an epileptic, stating his name and the contact numbers of people who can be reached in case of an emergency.

Later, Michigan state psychologists who examined Beloungea would confirm that he was having a seizure at the time of his arrest and that he was no danger to himself or to others.

The Epilepsy Foundation of America said it sees cases like Beloungea's around the country. The foundation said it could cite more than a dozen cases of police violence toward people in the midst of a seizure over the past 10 years. In 1999, Joaquin Gonzales died after he was arrested and hog tied while having an epileptic seizure in a Taos County, N.M., jail. County officials fired the guards on duty that night and paid Gonzales' family a $1.25 million settlement for his wrongful death.

Eric Hargis, the Epilepsy Foundation's CEO, cites one common aspect in each of those incidents: Police should have been better trained to recognize the seizure and not to use force on an epileptic.

"It's fairly easy, really, with limited amount of training for a police or other emergency first responder to be able to spot a seizure & this didn't have to take place," Hargis told ABC News.

"All [Beloungea] is guilty of is having a medical condition that resulted in a seizure."

The foundation sent a short set of guidelines to police departments around the country to help officers recognize and deal with victims of such seizures, but the Oakland County Sheriff's office claimed never to have heard of it until after Beloungea's case.

Look and Learn
When most people think of epileptic seizures, they think of people shaking on the ground -- symptoms of what's called a tonic-clonic or grand mal seizure. What Beloungea goes through is called a partial complex seizure, and it's actually more common.

A partial complex seizure does not come with the violent shaking symptoms most people associate with epilepsy. It involves a spell of unorganized, unintentional behavior: picking at clothes, chewing motions, and wandering aimlessly.

The Epilepsy Foundation said that the best thing police or bystanders can do when they see someone undergoing a seizure is to not restrain the person. Rather, they should simply let the seizure pass, watch to make sure the seizure sufferer is not in harm's way, and comfort the person when it ends. Call 911 if the episode lasts more than 5 to 7 minutes, the group advises.

Beloungea was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity. Beloungea is not insane -- he's simply epileptic. But his lawyer, Otis Underwood, told ABC News there was no other way to get Beloungea off the charges than the insanity defense. The catch: He had to spend 20 days locked in a criminal mental facility.

Beloungea said he's still waiting for an apology from the Oakland Sheriff's Office. What would Beloungea say if he could address them directly?

"I would say, 'In a situation like mine, look for a medical bracelet. Pay attention to what you're doing, know your job. Don't just grab a taser gun & 50,000 volts in a situation like mine could kill a person.'"

Beloungea's case is closed, for now. He's just hoping police will know better next time his body betrays him.

November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Taser inquest hears different versions of events

November 16, 2006
CBC News

Two RCMP officers have given contradictory evidence at a coroner's inquest into the death of a 41-year-old Surrey man in police custody in June 2005.

Gurmit Singh Sundhu, a father of four, died after police had Tasered him during an incident at his home.

The first officer on the scene, Cpl. Shailven Singh, told the five-person jury he had been told by a woman in the home that Sundhu was "coked up."

Singh said Sundhu was punching his wife, Harjit, when he stepped in to subdue him.

Harjit Sundhu had testified earlier that Singh Tasered her husband four times in the chest, and had kicked him while he was lying on the floor.

Singh testified he only Tasered Sundhu three times, and said he kicked Sundhu's hand.

But another officer who attended the call, had a different recollection. Const. Vladimir Napolean says he saw Singh kick Sundhu in the head.

Napolean says eventually both he and Singh, who are each over six feet tall and weigh more than 200 pounds, had to pepper spray Sundhu to subdue him.

Another officer, Const. James Connor testified the five-foot-seven-inch Sundhu displayed an "absolutely unreal" show of strength as he fought with police in his home.

Sundhu stopped breathing as the officers took him into custody. Paramedics and police couldn't revive him and he was pronounced dead at Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Taser Questions Still Unanswered

November 15, 2006
By Richard Warnica, TheTyee

A series of crime stories got big play in a couple spots today. The Globe led with the sentencing of a pair of brutal child rapists in Ontario. And went below the fold in the BC section with jail times for some lower mainland kidnappers.

Stories on crime-stoppers were also big. CBC, among others, follows on a VPD internal investigation. Police are investigating four officers for “possible assault, assault causing bodily harm, abuse of authority and conduct unbecoming an officer” after another officer tipped his superiors to a photo of the alleged posing with their victim.

Meanwhile, in Burnaby, a coroner’s inquest into the death in custody of a 40-year-old father continued with testimony from his wife of 20-years. Gurmit Singh Sundhu was hit with a Taser, pepper spray and even police boots before losing consciousness and dying in his Surrey home last June.

Crime stories like these hinge on events - sentencing, investigations, inquests – but they raise questions too. Questions about police procedure, sentence length and other core justice issues.

The problem is, when there is no event to hook a news story on, those questions, once asked, often stay unanswered.

More than two years ago Dee Hon reported in these pages on the death of Roman Andreichikov. Andreichikov, a 25 year old Vancouver man, died after 50,000 volts of electricity were shot through his body by way a policeman’s Taser.

We don’t know what killed Andreichikov. He was on the wrong end of a days long crack cocaine binge when he died and appeared to be in the midst of drug induced psychotic episode.

But the story raised an important question: In a city with large populations of hard drug users and the mentally ill, do we know enough about the effects of police takedowns on the highly agitated?

Thanks to Hon’s reporting, both in the initial story and a follow-up six weeks later, it was pretty clear back then that we didn’t. And, thanks todays eerily similar story on Gurmit Singh Sundhu, it's equally clear we still don't.

UCLA police taser student in Powell

November 15, 2006

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Victim's wife, daughter testify at Taser inquest

November 14, 2006
CBC News

The widow of a 41-year-old Surrey man who died in RCMP custody last year said officers did nothing to try to calm her husband down before using a Taser gun on him.

Harjit Sundhu told a coroner's inquest on Tuesday that police shot her husband, Gurmit Singh Sundhu, four times in the chest with the Taser, pepper sprayed him and that one officer even kicked him while he was lying on his bathroom floor.

She testified that her husband had been a gentle man, but admitted his behaviour had begun to change before the incident, and that his daughter suspected he had been using cocaine before his death on June 30, 2005.

She told the five-person jury that her husband had woken up in a panic at about 3 a.m. and was having trouble breathing.

Sundhu said she called for an ambulance, but it was the Surrey RCMP who showed up instead.

She said her husband had begun to calm down — until the officers began to arrive at their home.

The victim's 17-year-old daughter, Natasha, testified her father said he was seeing snakes and rats shortly before police arrived and Tasered him.

The father of four became unresponsive while being taken into custody. Efforts were made to revive him, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stunning Revelations - The Untold Story of Taser-Related Deaths

November 13, 2006
By Silja J.A. Talvi

TASER International Inc. maintains that its stun-guns are “changing the world and saving lives everyday.” There is no question that they changed Jack Wilson’s life. On Aug. 4, in Lafayette, Colo., policemen on a stakeout approached Jack’s son Ryan as he entered a field of a dozen young marijuana plants. When Ryan took off running, officer John Harris pursued the 22-year-old for a half-mile and then shot him once with an X-26 Taser. Ryan fell to the ground and began to convulse. The officer attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but Ryan died.

According to his family and friends, Ryan was in very good physical shape. The county coroner found no evidence of alcohol or drugs in his system and ruled that Ryan’s death could be attributed to the Taser shock, physical exertion from the chase and the fact that one of his heart arteries was unusually small.

In October, an internal investigation cleared Officer Harris of any wrongdoing and concluded that he had used appropriate force.

Wilson says that while his son had had brushes with the law as a juvenile and struggled financially, he was a gentle and sensitive young man who always looked out for his disabled younger brother’s welfare, and was trying to better his job prospects by becoming a plumber’s apprentice.

“Ryan was not a defiant kid,” says his father. “I don’t understand why the cop would chase him for a half-mile, and then ‘Tase’ him while he had an elevated heart rate. If [the officer] hadn’t done that, we know that he would still be alive today.”

Ryan is one of nearly 200 people who have died in the last five years after being shot by a Taser stun gun. In June, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would review these deaths.

Over the same period, Taser has developed a near-monopoly in the market for non-lethal weaponry. Increasingly, law enforcement officials use such weapons to subdue society’s most vulnerable members: prisoners, drug addicts and the mentally ill, along with “passive resisters,” like the protesters demonstrating against Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s attendance of a Rick Santorum fundraiser in Pittsburgh on Oct. 9. (See sidebar, “Passive Resisters.”)

Taser has built this monopoly through influence peddling, savvy public relations and by hiring former law enforcement and military officers—including one-time Homeland Security chief hopeful, Bernard Kerik. And now that questions are being raised about the safety of Taser weaponry, the company is fighting back with legal and marketing campaigns.

Birth of a Taser
In 1974, a NASA scientist named Jack Cover invented the first stun gun, which he named the TASER, or “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle,” after Tom Swift, a fictional young inventor who was the hero of a series of early 20th century adventure novels. Because it relied on gunpowder, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms classified Tasers as registered firearms.

That changed in the early ’90s. According to Taser’s corporate creation story, co-founder Rick Smith became interested in the device after friends of his “were brutally murdered by an angry motorist.” Smith contacted Cover in the hopes of bringing the Taser as a self-defense weapon to a larger market. In 1993, with money from Smith’s brother Tom, they created Air Taser Inc., which would later become Taser International Inc. When Tasers were re-engineered to work with a nitrogen propellant rather than gunpowder, the weapon was no longer categorized as a firearm. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department adopted the guns, but they were not widely embraced by other departments.

Taser’s fortunes improved in 1998, after the company embarked on a new development program, named “Project Stealth.” The goal was to streamline stun gun design and deliver enough voltage to stop “extremely combative, violent individuals,” especially those who couldn’t be controlled by non-lethal chemicals like mace.

Out of Project Stealth, the Advanced Taser was born. When the weapon premiered in 2000—a model eventually redesigned as the M-26—the company brought on a cadre of active and retired military and law enforcement personnel to vouch for the weapon’s efficacy. The new spokespersons ranged from Arizona SWAT members to a former Chief Instructor of hand-to-hand combat for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Taser began to showcase the Advanced Taser at technology-related conventions throughout North America and Europe, billing it as a non-lethal weapon that could take down even the toughest adversary. Soon to be among those “dangerous” opponents were the protesters assembling in Philadelphia for the 2000 Republican National Convention.

By the following year, 750 law enforcement agencies had either tested or deployed the weapon. Today, more than 9,500 law enforcement, correctional and military agencies in 43 countries use Taser weaponry. In the past eight years, more than 184,000 Tasers have been sold to law enforcement agencies, with another 115,000 to citizens in the 43 states where it is legal to possess a stun gun.

When the electricity hits
Taser’s stun guns are designed to shoot a maximum of 50,000 volts into a person’s body through two compressed nitrogen-fueled probes, thereby disrupting the target’s electromuscular system. The probes are connected to the Taser gun by insulated wires, and can deliver repeat shocks in quick succession. The probes can pierce clothing and skin from a distance or be directly applied to a person’s body—a process known as “dry stunning”—for an ostensibly less-incapacitating, cattle-prod effect.

“The impetus for Tasers came from the often community-led search for ‘less-than-lethal’ police weapons,” explains Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department and author of Breaking Rank. “[There were] too many questionable or bad police shootings, and cops saying, correctly, that there are many ambiguous situations where a moment’s hesitation could lead to their own deaths or the death of an innocent other.”

According to Taser’s promotional materials, its stun guns are designed to “temporarily override the nervous system [and take] over muscular control.” People who have experienced the effect of a Taser typically liken it to a debilitating, full-body seizure, complete with mental disorientation and loss of control over bodily functions.

Many Taser-associated deaths have been written up by coroners as being attributable to “excited delirium,” a condition that includes frenzied or aggressive behavior, rapid heart rate and aggravating factors related to an acute mental state and/or drug-related psychosis. When such suspects are stunned, especially while already being held down or hogtied, deaths seem to occur after a period of “sudden tranquility,” as Taser explains in its CD-ROM training material entitled, “Sudden Custody Death: Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong.” In that same material, the company warns officers to “try to minimize the appearance of mishandling suspects.”

Taser did not respond to requests for an interview. But its press and business-related statements have consistently echoed the company’s official position: “TASER devices use proprietary technology to quickly incapacitate dangerous, combative or high-risk subjects who pose a risk to law enforcement officers, innocent citizens or themselves.” Another brochure, specifically designed for law enforcement, clearly states that the X26 has “no after effects.”

Ryan Wilson’s family can attest otherwise, as can many others.

Casualties and cruelties
In the span of three months—July, August and September—Wilson’s Taser-related death was only one among several. Larry Noles, 52, died after being stunned three times on his body (and finally on his neck) after walking around naked and “behaving erratically.” An autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in his system. Mark L. Lee, 30, was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor and having a seizure when a Rochester, N.Y., police officer stunned him. In Cookeville, Ala., 31-year-old Jason Dockery was stunned because police maintain he was being combative while on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Family members believe he was having an aneurysm. And Nickolos Cyrus, a 29-year-old man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was shocked 12 times with a Taser stun gun after a Mukwonago, Wis., police officer caught him trespassing on a home under construction. An inquest jury has already ruled that the officer who shot Cyrus—who was delusional and naked from the waist down when he was stunned—was within his rights to act as he did.

Although the company spins it otherwise, Taser-associated deaths are definitely on the rise. In 2001, Amnesty International documented three Taser-associated deaths. The number has steadily increased each year, peaking at 61 in 2005. So far almost 50 deaths have occurred in 2006, for an approximate total of 200 deaths in the last five years.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups have also drawn attention to the use of Tasers on captive populations in hospitals, jails and prisons.

In fact, the first field tests relating to the efficacy of the “Advanced Taser” model in North America were conducted on incarcerated men. In December 1999, the weapon was used, with “success,” against a Clackamas County (Ore.) Jail inmate. The following year, the first-ever Canadian use of an Advanced Taser was by the Victoria Police, on an inmate in psychiatric lockdown. Since that time, Taser deployment in jails and prisons has become increasingly commonplace, raising concerns about violations of 8th Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

This summer, the ACLU of Colorado filed a class action suit on behalf of prisoners in the Garfield County Jail, where jail staff have allegedly used Tasers and electroshock belts, restraint chairs, pepper spray and pepperball guns as methods of torture. According to Mark Silverstein, legal director for ACLU of Colorado, inmates have told him that Tasers are pulled out and “displayed” by officers on a daily basis, either as a form of intimidation and threat compliance, or to shock the inmates for disobeying orders.

A recent report from the ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP), “Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” concerns the plight of the estimated 6,500 New Orleans prisoners left to fend for themselves in the days after the monumental New Orleans flood. The NPP’s Tom Jawetz says that the organization has been looking into abuses at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) since 1999, but that the incidents that took place in jails and prisons in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were unprecedented.

Take the case of New Orleans resident Ivy Gisclair. Held at OPP for unpaid parking tickets, Gisclair was about to be released on his own recognizance when Hurricane Katrina hit. After languishing with thousands of other prisoners in a flooded jail, Gisclair was sent to the Bossier Parish Maximum Security Prison. Once there, Gisclair apparently had the nerve to inquire about being held past his release date. Gisclair has testified that he was then restrained and stunned repeatedly with a Taser, before being thrown, naked and unconscious, into solitary confinement.

“I can’t imagine any justification for that,” says Jawetz. “[Prison guards] were kicking, beating and ‘Tasing’ him until he lost consciousness. A line was crossed that should never have been crossed.”

In March, Reuben Heath, a handcuffed and subdued Montana inmate, was shocked while lying prone in his bed. The deputy involved—a one-time candidate for sheriff—now faces felony charges.

Gisclair and Heath are among the inmates who have survived in-custody incidents involving the abuse of Tasers. Others haven’t been as fortunate. This year alone, those who have died in custody in the aftermath of being stunned by Tasers include Arapahoe County Jail (Colorado) inmate Raul Gallegos-Reyes, 34, who was strapped to a restraint chair and stunned; Jerry Preyer, 45, who suffered from a severe mental illness in an Escambia County, Fla., jail and was shocked twice by a Taser; and Karl Marshall, 32, who died in Kansas City police custody two hours after he was stunned with PCP and crack cocaine in his system.

Appropriate uses
“We are seeing far too many cases where Tasers are not being used for their intended purposes,” says Sheley Secrest, president of NAACP Seattle. “And many of these cases don’t end up getting reported or properly investigated because people are so humiliated by the experience.”

Former U.S. Marshal Matthew Fogg, a long-time SWAT specialist and vice president of Blacks in Government, says that if stun guns are going to be used by law enforcement, training on their use should be extensive, and that the weapons should also be placed high up on what police officers call the “use-of-force continuum.”

Fogg isn’t alone in calling for such measures. In October 2005, the Police Executive Research Forum, an influential police research and advocacy group, recommended that law enforcement only be allowed to use Tasers on people aggressively resisting arrest. The organization also recommended that law enforcement officers needed to step back and evaluate the condition of suspects after they had been shocked once. Similar recommendations were included in an April 2005 report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. That report also urged police departments to evaluate whether certain vulnerable groups—including the mentally ill—should be excluded altogether from being shot with Tasers.

Although Fogg’s organization has called for an outright ban of Tasers until further research can be conducted, Fogg says that he knows responsible members of law enforcement are perfectly capable of using the weapons effectively. Officers who are willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of the community, he emphasizes, must be given the tools and training to be able to minimize harm to themselves and to others.

Fogg, who also serves on the board of Amnesty International USA, says that too many members of law enforcement seem to be using them as compliance mechanisms. “It’s something along the lines of, ‘If I don’t like you, I can torture you,’ ” he says.

Some law enforcement agencies have already implemented careful use policies, including the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which selectively hands out Tasers to carefully trained deputies. The department also prohibits use of Tasers on subjects already “under control.” According to Sheriff Michael Hennessey, deputies are not allowed to use stun guns in response to minor ineffectual threats, as a form of punishment, or on juveniles or pregnant women. Within the department, stun guns are purposely set to turn off after five seconds. Additionally, every use of the weapon in a jail facility must be videotaped.

“I authorize Tasers to be used on people who are at high risk of hurting themselves or deputies,” Sheriff Hennessey emphasizes. “Without options like these, the inmate and the deputies are much more likely to get seriously hurt.”

But when stun guns are used on people who don’t fit that criteria, Secrest says, the public should be asking serious questions about the efficacy of Taser use, particularly because of the emotional trauma related to Taser-related take-downs.

“When a person comes into our office after they’ve been [Tased], it’s not as much the physical pain they talk about as much as the humiliation, the disrespect,” she says. “The people [who are stunned by these guns] talk about not being able to move, and thinking that they were going to die.”

As for actual Taser-associated deaths, Secrest believes that they should be investigated just as thoroughly as deaths involving firearms. Instead, Taser injuries and deaths are typically justified because officers report that the suspect was resisting an arrest.

“That’s the magic word: ‘resisted,’” says Secrest. “Any kind of police oversight investigation tends to end right there.”

Capitalizing on 9/11
Despite these concerns, Taser International Inc. has thrived. The 9/11 terrorist attacks sent the company’s profits soaring. Many domestic and international airlines—as well a variety of major law enforcement agencies—were eager to acquire a new arsenal of weapons. Homeland Security money flooded into both state and federal-level departments, many of which were gung-ho to acquire a new arsenal of high-tech gadgets.

In 2002, Taser brought on former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik as the company’s director. Kerik had attained popularity in the wake of 9/11 as a law-and-order-minded hero; the company had seemingly picked one of the best spokespersons imaginable.

With Kerik’s help, company’s profits grew to $68 million in 2004, up from just under $7 million in 2001, and stockholders were able to cash in, including the Smith family, who raked in $91.5 million in just one fiscal quarter in 2004.

Unbeknownst to most stockholders, however, sales have been helped along by police officers who have received payments and/or stock options from Taser to serve as instructors and trainers. (The exact number of officers on the payroll is unknown because the company declines to identify active-duty officers who have received stock options.)

The recruitment of law enforcement has been crucial to fostering market penetration. For instance, Sgt. Jim Halsted of the Chandler, Ariz., Police Department, joined Taser President Rick Smith in making a presentation to the Chandler city council in March 2003. He made the case for arming the entire police patrol squad with M-26 Tasers. According to the Associated Press, Halsted said, “No deaths are attributed to the M-26 at all.”

The council approved a $193,000 deal later that day.

As it turned out, Halsted was already being rewarded with Taser stock options as a member of the company’s “Master Instructor Board.” Two months after the sale, Halsted became Taser’s Southwest regional sales manager.

In addition, Taser has developed a potent gimmick to sell its futuristic line of weapons. In 2003, Taser premiered the X-26. According to Taser’s promotional materials, the X-26 features an enhanced dataport to help “save officer’s careers from false allegations” by recording discharge date and time, number and length and date of discharges, and the optional ability to record the event with the Taser webcam. The X-26 also boasts a more powerful incapacitation rating of 105 “Muscular Disruption Units”, up from 100 MDU’s for the M-26.

The X-26 is apparently far more pleasing to the eye. As Taser spokesperson Steve Tuttle told a law enforcement trade journal, “It’s a much sexier-looking product.”

Lawsuits jolt Taser
As increasing numbers of police departments obtained Taser stun guns, the weapons started to be deployed against civilians with greater frequency.

Many of the civilian Taser-associated incidents have resulted in lawsuits, most of which have either been dismissed or settled out of court. But there have been a few exceptions.

In late September, Kevin Alexander, 29, was awarded $82,500 to settle an excessive force federal lawsuit after being shocked 17 times with a Taser by a New Orleans Parish police officer. The department’s explanation: the shocks were intended to make him cough up drugs he had allegedly swallowed.

One recently settled Colorado case involved Christopher Nielsen, 37, who was “acting strangely” and was not responsive to police orders after he crashed his car. For his disobedience, he was stunned five times. When it was revealed that Nielsen was suffering from seizures, the county settled the case for $90,000.

An Akron, Ohio, man also recently accepted a $35,000 city settlement. One day in May 2005, he had gone into diabetic shock and police found him slumped over his steering wheel. Two officers proceeded to physically beat, Mace and Taser him after he did not respond to orders to get out of the car.

Taser’s lack of response to the misuse of the company’s weapons is troubling. The company relentlessly puts a positive spin on Taser use, most recently with a “The Truth is Undeniable” Web ad campaign, which contrasts mock courtroom scenes with the fictionalized, violent antics of civilians that prompt police to stungun them.

The campaign involves print ads, direct mail DVDs and online commercials that “draw attention to a rampant problem in this country: false allegations against law enforcement officers,” according to Steve Ward, Taser’s vice president of marketing.

“We’re going to win”
The lawsuits have scared off some investors, making Taser’s stock extremely volatile over the years. But press coverage of the company this past summer largely centered around Taser’s “successes” in the courtroom. In addition to settling a $21.8 million shareholder lawsuit revolving around allegations that the company had exaggerated the safety of their product (they admitted no wrongdoing), Taser has triumphed in more than 20 liability dismissals and judgments in favor of the company. And the company’s finances are on the upswing: Third-quarter 2006 revenues increased nearly 60 percent.

Regardless, CEO Rick Smith claims his company is target of a witchhunt. “We’re waiting for people to dunk me in water and see if I float,” is how he put it during a March 2005 debate with William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Last year, with 40 new lawsuits filed against it, Taser dedicated $7 million in its budget to defending the company’s reputation and “brand equity.” The company has also gone on the offense, hiring two full-time, in-house litigators.

At one point, Taser hinted that it might sue Amnesty International for taking a critical position regarding Taser-associated injuries and deaths. In November 2004 Smith announced that the company’s legal team had begun a “comprehensive review of AI’s disparaging and unsupported public statements [to] advise me as to various means to protect our company’s good name.”

In one of the company’s brashest legal maneuvers to date, Taser sued Gannett Newspapers for libel in 2005. The lawsuit alleged USA Today “sensationalized” the power of Taser guns by inaccurately reporting that the electrical output of the gun was more than 100 times that of the electric chair. This past January, a judge threw the case out, saying that the error in the article was not malicious, and that the story was protected by the First Amendment.

The company remains unwavering and aggressively protective, even as Taser-associated deaths mount each month. As Smith told the Associated Press in February, “If you’re coming to sue Taser, bring your game face, strap it on and let’s go. We’re gonna win.”

From Jack Wilson’s standpoint, citizens are the real losers. His son Ryan lost his life in a situation that could have been handled any number of other ways, and no amount of legal posturing can bring Ryan back.

“I still can’t believe my son is gone,” he says. “The fact is that these Tasers can be lethal. No matter how they’re categorized, Tasers shouldn’t be treated as toys.”

Thanks to the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund for research support, and to David Burnett for research assistance.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

10 training tips for handling "excited delirium"

November 1, 2006
Force Science Research Center