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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Experts dispute risks of using stun guns on pregnant women

January 30, 2007
Heather Hollingsworth
Associated Press

Tianesha Robinson was about four months pregnant last fall when she was jolted with a Taser stun gun while resisting arrest during a traffic stop.

After experiencing cramps for several weeks, the 33-year-old Wichita, Kan., woman miscarried. Her family insists there is a connection between the miscarriage and the roughly 50,000-volt shock that subdued her, though doctors said the link would be more clear had she miscarried immediately after the shock.

That kind of uncertainty is fueling debate over the safety of the devices.

Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz., has said its products are safe law enforcement tools, but did not return several calls for comment on this story.

The human rights group Amnesty International has identified more than 230 people who have died after being stunned since June 2001. The group is particularly concerned about the use of Tasers on vulnerable people, such as those who are pregnant, sick or very young or old.

Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty's USA Program, said it can be difficult to tell whether someone is a member of one of those vulnerable groups.

"People with heart problems aren't always identifiable by appearance and people who are pregnant are not always identifiable until the later half of their pregnancy, sometimes not until the last trimester," Hashad said.

She said the group wasn't aware of anyone who tracked the number of pregnant women who have been shocked with Tasers, but other women besides Robinson have reported suffering miscarriages after sustaining shocks.

One woman, Cindy Grippi, settled a lawsuit with the city of Chula Vista, Calif., for $675,000. She delivered a stillborn girl in December 2001 after police used a Taser on her when she refused to halt. A medical examiner was unable to determine a cause of death and suggested Grippi's methamphetamine use could be to blame.

"There is one thing we know," said Fabrice Czarnecki, an emergency physician and staff doctor for the Police Policy Studies Council, a law enforcement research training and consulting group. "If you are hit by a Taser you are likely to fall. We know even minor trauma during pregnancy, like a fall, is dangerous and could be fatal to the fetus. Again, we don't know whether the risk is 1 percent or 5 percent. We don't know. But we know it's there."

Taser itself warns on its Web site that people who are infirm or pregnant may be at higher risk of secondary injuries, such as those due to falls.

"As far as the electricity on the fetus, I think it may be dangerous," Czarnecki added, noting there's an absence of peer-reviewed research on the subject.

Czarnecki said Taser has conducted one unpublished animal study that found the Taser did not induce miscarriage in two pregnant pigs. But Czarnecki also noted a 1992 case report regarding a woman who was shocked with a predecessor of the modern-day Taser when she was 12 weeks pregnant. She began to miscarry seven days later.

The author, Lewis E. Mehl, concluded that the devices could deliver electrical injuries capable of harming a fetus.

"Ethical questions should be raised about the criteria for the use of the Taser on women of childbearing age," wrote Mehl, now an associate professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine in Canada.

In the case of Robinson, there is some dispute about how pregnant she appeared. The Sedgwick County deputy has told supervisors he was unaware that she was pregnant when he shocked her. But her aunt, Betty Arnold, said her niece was obviously showing.

Robinson was jolted Sept. 29 after she wriggled free of handcuffs and fled police during a traffic stop. The deputy chased her down and deployed the taser, but the probes missed. He later pushed the barrel of the stun gun once against the side of her abdomen and once against her back, Sedgwick County Undersheriff Bob Hinshaw said.

Using a Taser that way, known as a "drive stun," causes isolated pain, but not the total incapacitation that would have occurred if the probes had hit her, Hinshaw said.

Robinson was taken into custody and held at the county jail. There, she miscarried Oct. 25 after going into labor.

Six days later, she was convicted of escaping from custody during a July altercation and driving with a suspended license in March 2003. She was sentenced to time already served.

Because Robinson did not miscarry immediately, Arnold said attorneys showed little interest in her case.

"Until someone stands up and holds police departments and manufacturers of this instrument more accountable, I think there are going to be a lot of babies that suffer," Arnold said.

Hinshaw said the department conducted a review and determined the arresting deputy did not violate departmental policies when he used the Taser on Robinson. The jail also conducted a review and determined the care Robinson received was appropriate.

"Regardless of how it got to that point, you're still talking about the miscarriage of a baby," he said. "That's a tragedy, especially for the expectant mother."

He said the incident was not considered a lethal-force situation.

"But ask yourself, if it's a lethal force situation, what's the better situation - a Taser or a firearm?

"It really boils down to the actions of the suspect and the unique factors going on at the time."

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Deputies may be charged in cow taser death

January 23, 2007

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Two Spokane County deputies could be charged with animal cruelty in the death of a calf that was allegedly jolted with 50,000 volts of electricity from a stun gun for more than 4 minutes, a judge has ruled.

Spokane County District Court Judge Sara Derr said there is sufficient evidence to charge sheriff's deputies Damon Simmons and Ballard Bates with second-degree animal cruelty.

The maximum penalty for conviction on the misdemeanor is 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"This is a first for citizens of Spokane County," said animal rights attorney Adam Karp, of Bellingham. Actually, Karp said the case may be unique in the state in that it involves defendants who are in law enforcement, a victim that is an animal, and a county prosecutor who did not want to file charges.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich on Monday defended his deputies, saying they did not want to shoot an animal that was posing a threat to traffic on Interstate 90.

Karp said he will draft a criminal complaint and submit it to the court for filing within the next week, after review by the county prosecutor's office. Karp may ask for the appointment of a special prosecutor because county Prosecutor Steve Tucker refused to file charges and his deputy, Brian O'Brien, argued Monday against the filing of the citizen's petition. Karp represented Chris Anderlik, of Liberty Lake, who sought to have the court file animal cruelty charges after the prosecutor's office refused to act on her complaint.

"I have nothing vicious against the sheriff's deputies or the police," Anderlik said. "We just think they weren't sufficiently trained about what Tasers can do. I don't think they had any thought of being malicious," she said. "But this animal was tortured mercilessly."

The two deputies used their Taser stun guns to shoot the 6-month-old calf that had escaped from a farm on April 12. It was cornered in a grassy area along the Centennial Trail, a paved bike path that runs between Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Computer printouts showed Bates' gun was discharged 42 consecutive times at five-second intervals for a total of 210 seconds, Karp said. Simmons' weapon was discharged for 253 continuous seconds, the animal rights attorney said.

Although the animal had run through areas of traffic, it was grazing and not posing an immediate threat when the deputies used their Tasers, he said.

Knezovich on Monday contended the deputies were completely justified. The calf was cornered close to Interstate 90 and the Spokane Valley Mall, in an area with heavy traffic congestion. "They were concerned the cow was going to get loose and cause a severe traffic accident," Knezovich said. "The guys were really doing what they thought was best for the animal and the public," he added. "They really didn't want to shoot the animal."

The deputies used their Tasers in the belief that electronically stunning the animal would give them a chance to hobble its legs until its owner arrived, Knezovich said.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Family of stun gun victim bracing for June inquiry

January 18, 2007

Relatives of an Edmonton man who died Christmas Eve 2005 after getting zapped with a police stun gun say this past Christmas was extremely difficult. “Very tough, very tough,” Antoniette Fiacco, heartbroken mother of Alesandro Fiacco, told the Sun yesterday.

Now the family is bracing for an extremely difficult summer. A public inquiry under the Fatality Inquiries Act is tentatively slated to begin June 18. But that date is subject to change as lawyers are asking for the inquiry to be extended from five to 10 days.

Provincial court Judge Fred Day will act as commissioner of the inquiry, which seeks to establish the facts of the cop-related death, including the circumstances and cause.

A long list of witnesses is expected to be called to testify, including as many as eight police officers, two paramedics and at least six civilians.

The inquiry will not seek to assign responsibility or guilt for Alesandro’s death, Day said.

Following the inquiry, Day will write a report that may include recommendations on how to avoid a similar incident in the future.

Cops zapped Alesandro four times with a stun gun Dec. 24, 2005, after responding to a disturbance near the intersection of 113 Street and 76 Avenue. Police said several attempts were made to bring the unarmed and erratic 33-year-old under control. A medical examiner later concluded Alesandro died of a cocaine overdose and not because he was shocked by cops.

Last March, cops tightened up policies around stun gun use, making officers who use them more accountable.

The Fiacco family has said they want to ensure cops are adequately trained to recognize when a person needs help.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Taser fatality lawsuit settled

January 12, 2007
Julia Scott, Oakland Tribune

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Fredericton police to use Tasers despite controversy

January 10, 2007
CBC News

Fredericton's police department is spending nearly $40,000 to arm officers with Tasers following a two-year pilot program.

Police Chief Barry McKnight says officers have used the weapon, which delivers up to 50,000 volts of electricity to the victim, 13 times during arrests since 2004. He acknowledges the stun guns are controversial, but insists they are safe and will help police do their jobs.

But Fredericton activist Asaf Rashid says arming officers with Tasers is a bad idea. Rashid was arrested last May at a downtown rally. The officer who arrested him is facing an assault charge and Rashid says the use of Tasers in a similar situation could be dangerous. "One of the huge problems with Tasers is that they are classified as non-lethal weapons, and I totally disagree that they're non-lethal weapons."

Police forces across New Brunswick have been using Tasers for years, but not without some problems. In May 2005, Moncton resident Kevin Geldart died after RCMP used a Taser outside a city nightclub. His death will be examined at a coroner's inquest beginning Feb. 21. In September 2006, human rights groups condemned the Hampton RCMP for using a Taser on a 17-year-old boy at a house party more than a dozen times. The teen was later charged with resisting arrest.

Despite all that, McKnight says research by police agencies and the National Research Council has convinced him that Tasers are safe, when used properly.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Man dies after eye stabbing in taxi

January 8, 2007
CBC News

A 26-year-old man apparently stabbed in the eye during a bizarre taxi hijacking last week is dead.

James Barber died Friday night in hospital, where he had been in critical condition since the Jan. 3 incident, Ontario's Special Investigations Unit said in a news release.

The incident began in Ottawa's west end at 2:45 a.m. ET on Wednesday, when a taxi picked up two men near Greenbank and Iris Roads, the SIU said.

Local taxi union head Yusef Al Mezel said Wednesday he spoke to the driver, who reported that two men were bleeding and held a knife against his throat to make him drive.

The SIU release said the driver called police, who met the vehicle near Merivale Road and Trenton Avenue.

Mezel said at that point the driver and one passenger jumped out, leaving Barber inside the car.

Police surrounded the car and spoke to Barber, who eventually emerged with a stab wound to his eye.

The SIU is a civilian government agency that investigates instances involving police in which someone is seriously injured or killed.