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Monday, July 28, 2008

'Lethal' nonetheless - study shows stun safety, but more research needed

July 28, 2008
CHRIS KITCHING, The Winnipeg Sun

A landmark study of police Taser use in the U.S. suggests the device is safe after finding almost 100% of 1,000 suspects zapped suffered either mild injuries or none at all.

Despite the findings, the principal investigator of the two-year study, released last October, doesn't think a stun gun or any other weapon can be considered non-lethal and is calling for more research into its effects.

"Any weapon, all the way from your fist to a metal baton, can cause injuries and even death," said Dr. William Bozeman. "There's no such thing, in my mind, as a non-lethal weapon. I refer to (Tasers) as 'less lethal.' "

Using data from six U.S. police departments, Bozeman's study looked at 1,000 incidents where police stunned a suspect with a Taser. He found a 0.3% likelihood of serious injury.

Three people suffered a significant injury and two died, but not as a result of a Taser, Bozeman said.

"We don't have any particular cases where it's clearly evident the Taser was the cause of death," he said.

Stun guns have been deemed a contributing factor in some deaths.

The study does not argue for or against stun guns, but Bozeman said he supports police use of Tasers.

The Taser debate has reignited after the death of Winnipeg teen Michael Langan.

Langan, 17, died July 22 after he was shocked by a city police officer in a William Avenue alley when, police said, he refused to drop a knife.

The cause of death is unknown. It's the first such death in Manitoba.

Bozeman said the study is the first to explore the likelihood of serious injury and is based on human and animal studies.

Concerns about electrical safety have not been fully addressed, the report found.

Bozeman said there is a need for more research into cardiac safety and whether certain people are at greater risk of injury or death due to their age, medical or psychiatric conditions, or the presence of intoxicants.

So far, no human studies have found any evidence a Taser -- which sends a small amount of energy to the body -- can stop a person's heart but that doesn't mean it's not possible, Bozeman said.

The Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties is among those calling for more research into the effects of Tasers.

"When we see another death we have trouble understanding why this is described as a non-lethal response," said executive director Valerie Price. "We're not drawing any conclusions yet on whether things were done appropriately in this particular case that happened (last week)."

Winnipeg police reviewed its Taser policies and training last winter at the request of a city hall committee and found nothing unusual.

Several governments or agencies are reviewing Taser policies and safety after recent deaths in Canada.

Manitoba's NDP government has not said if it will do its own review.

Bozeman said his study was funded by the National Institute of Justice but was independent from government and stun gun manufacturers, including TASER International.

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