December 12, 2008
by Ronald J. Hansen and Robert Anglen, The Arizona Republic
Police departments across Canada, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, are pulling older Taser stun guns off the streets following a new study that found the weapons can deliver more power than the manufacturer says is possible.
Police departments in the United States, however, appear to have taken no similar action.
Taser International responded to the study, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., with e-mails to police departments claiming the research is flawed.
"It is unfortunate that false allegations based on scientifically flawed data can create such uncertainty," Steve Tuttle, a Taser vice president, told The Arizona Republic. Taser also said researchers redid the test after the company pointed out errors.
However, Taser's assertions about specific data flaws contradict company documents and a letter from one of its top scientists. An audio recording also shows Taser was told that no retest took place.
"No, we never did (a retest). Absolutely not," said reporter Frederic Zalac of the CBC, which commissioned the study by a U.S. defense contractor and a Montreal biomedical engineer. "It is completely untrue."
The study, released last week, found that four of 44 stun guns of the X26 model used most by police departments fired jolts that were 47 percent to 58 percent higher than the manufacturer's specifications. The four high-firing weapons were sold to two police departments in 2004.
An accompanying medical analysis concluded that the higher jolts pose as much as a 50 percent risk of inducing cardiac arrest in some people and that stun guns firing at expected electrical levels pose some risk.
Taser maintains that shocks from its stun guns can't kill.
The president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Washington, D.C., said Thursday that he was not aware of the study. Police officials with Valley departments, where most officers are armed with Tasers, have said they will evaluate it.
Canadian authorities are not waiting. Calling it a matter of national safety, the ministers of public safety for the provinces of British Columbia and Quebec in the past week ordered Tasers manufactured before 2006 to be recalled for testing and recalibration, if necessary.
"It is just to be secure, safe," said Mario Vaillancourt, spokesman for the public-safety minister in Quebec. "We want to be sure that all Tasers are safe in the province."
The order applies to Tasers being used by police officers, corrections officers and transit police. It is unknown how many Tasers could be recalled for testing.
"All impacted organizations are currently doing an inventory to determine exact numbers of devices that will require mandatory outside testing," British Columbia Public Safety Minister John van Dongen said in a written statement.
Van Dongen said his office will work with police departments to establish a standard for regular calibration of all Tasers used in the province.
Similar moves have been announced by the Mounties and police departments in Nova Scotia and Winnipeg.
For its part, Taser considers the CBC testing troublesome and wrong.
"Taser International stands behind the quality and safety of its products and is providing full cooperation and all information necessary to allay any concerns," said Tuttle, the Taser vice president.
"Taser International welcomes proper testing of its devices and has provided its factory test protocols to test laboratories in Canada so police agencies can avoid the scientific errors made by the CBC."
Taser officials have not yet addressed the issues related to the study's medical claims or issues the study raised about quality control in manufacturing or whether the stun guns' performance declines over time.
Tuttle on Thursday declined to comment on documents and a recording that contradict Taser's challenges to the study.
In an e-mail to police and others, Taser said that researchers failed to conduct a "spark test" to warm up the stun guns, which the company said is critical to getting a reliable shock reading. The company also said researchers measured the shocks using the wrong resistance level to calculate the impact of shocks on the human body.
Resistance, measured in ohms, refers to an object's ability to withstand an electrical charge. The higher the resistance level, the less effect the charge will have.
Magne Nerheim, Taser's vice president of research and development, said the study measured the Taser shocks at 250 ohms instead of the necessary 600 ohms, leading to false measurements.
However, in a May 21 letter to Canadian police officers who were testing two Taser stun guns involved in a death, Nerheim advised them to use a 250-ohm resistance.
The letter accompanied a step-by-step guide for hooking up the equipment and included an arrow pointing to an image of a 250-ohm resistor.
The testing protocol from Taser does not mention the spark test.
Taser also maintained in its e-mail to police that the CBC rested the guns after consulting with Taser. "The four devices were retested using the recommended spark test," resulting in current levels within the manufacturer's specifications, the e-mail said.
Zalac, of the CBC, said this didn't happen and supplied an audio recording of a Dec. 3 telephone conversation with a Taser representative. In it, Zalac says that no Tasers were retested using Taser's recommended spark test. Zalac tells the Taser official that one Taser was tested twice and that the results were the same, with the gun producing higher shocks than the manufacturer specified.
Tasers are in use by more than 12,000 police agencies across the United States, and police credit the stun gun with reducing officer and suspect injuries. More than 400 people in the United States and Canada have died after police Taser strikes since 2001.
Pierre Savard, a University of Montreal biomedical engineer who co-authored the Canadian report with two Americans, defended their work and the response by police in his country.
"It's a responsible reaction. It's the right thing to do," Savard said. "There's a need to know more about Tasers."
Savard said no spark test was done last summer by National Technical Systems, a California-based engineering firm that measured the electrical output for the X26 stun guns.
Instead, NTS technicians noticed unusually high electrical output from two guns and fired them again seconds after the first shot, he said.
One of the guns that was fired a second time still registered an output level that was beyond what Taser expected and could pose nearly a 50 percent risk of cardiac arrest, Savard said. Four of the Tasers in the study would not fire or could not maintain a charge.
In pointing to the safety of its products, Taser has cited an international guideline that helps doctors assess the risk of heart troubles.
But the guideline Taser referred to changed in 2007 and "very significantly" understates the risk electricity can pose to humans, Savard said.
Savard said the rule is imperfect but is widely considered more accurate than the 1987 rule used by Taser.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Friday, December 12, 2008
December 12, 2008