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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Police agencies not much moved by UCSF Taser study

February 3, 2009
By Robert Salonga, Contra Costa Times

A UC San Francisco study cautioning about the dangers of police use of Tasers has been coolly received by Contra Costa law enforcement authorities who say the device has bolstered the safety of both officers and suspects in violent situations.

The Taser has been proffered as a nonlethal alternative to firearms. But the statistical study found that the devices did not significantly increase officer safety or decrease officer-involved shooting deaths in the first year of use.

The UCSF research team conceded important limitations of the study, particularly the size of the data pool. Fifty of 126 California law enforcement agencies sent complete data to researchers, and the country's 10 largest cities were contacted but did not respond. Researchers, who estimate that Tasers are used by 12,000 law enforcement, military and correctional agencies worldwide, declined to comment specifically on which agencies responded.

The other key limitation of the study is that in the case of non-firearm in-custody deaths, it is not clear how many involved the use of a Taser. At best, the figures can be associated only with the availability of Tasers to officers.

"Since this is an observational study, it's hard to make definitive conclusions. But it definitely raises questions about its safety," said Byron Lee, author of the study and an assistant clinical professor in cardiology.

Except for the Sheriff's Office, law enforcement officers on patrol in Contra Costa County use a model of the Taser, the most popular brand of electric stun gun that shoots probes with electric current to briefly incapacitate a person. The Sheriff's Office only uses Tasers in county jails.

Local law enforcement agencies agreed that Taser use carries risks, but no more than any other means of force. But they said the study seemed to downplay the safety benefits Tasers provide for officers and suspects.

"Prior to it coming along, there was ... a big gap between intermediate force options like batons and pepper spray, and lethal force," said Concord police Sgt. Dave Hughes, who oversees his department's Taser training.

Three of the police agencies interviewed by the Times — Antioch, Concord and the Sheriff's Office — have not had Tasers in wide circulation long enough for the study. Brentwood police Lt. Tom Hansen said his department has had Tasers in place for about five years, but said he wasn't aware of his department being contacted by researchers.

The study, posted online in late January and set for publication in the American Journal of Cardiology, compared non-firearm suspect deaths, firearm deaths, and officer injuries in the five years before Taser deployment and five years after. Cardiologists led the study in part because Tasers have been demonstrated to cause rapid irregular heartbeat, and adrenaline from a struggle and multiple shocks near the heart can make a person more susceptible to death or injury.

In the first of year of Taser use, study data showed a sixfold increase in non-firearm, in-custody deaths of police suspects, from 0.93 per 100,000 arrests to 5.96. In the same period, the study found the frequency of suspect deaths involving the use of a firearm more than doubled from 6.66 per 100,000 arrests to 15.1. Researchers did not get comparable data to track officer injuries in the same period, but observed no significant change linked to Taser use.

But after the first year — which varies, though police departments started adopting Tasers in the late 1990s — the study suggested that police adjusted their use and deaths and injuries returned to levels before Taser implementation.

Hughes offered statistics from his own department refuting the study's observations. In Concord, figures from 2006 — the first full year Tasers were used — show a 21 percent decrease from 2005 in "use of force" events, which include police dogs, physical restraint, batons and pepper spray. Those figures include one on-duty firearm discharge in 2005 and none the following year.

Officer injuries in 2006 decreased 35 percent from 2005, from 26 to 17. Hughes said that can be largely attributed to an increase in Taser uses, with 47 recorded discharges in 2006, up from 17 in 2005, when officers also used other forms of stun guns.

There have been no recorded in-custody deaths in Contra Costa County directly linked to Taser use. In one instance, however, a Taser was one of several measures used on Uriah Dach, a 26-year-old mentally ill man who died after a violent struggle with police April 22 at a Richmond boardinghouse. Dach had ripped out the Taser prods police used on him during the fracas.

Local police agencies said officers undergo routine Taser training. Antioch police Sgt. Tammany Brooks, whose department started using Tasers in 2006, oversees a 10-hour training session on the device. Officers must recertify each year.

The training covers areas such as the optimal spots on the body to aim Taser shots that incapacitate without causing injury. That includes larger muscles, such as the back and legs. Officers also learn to stand far enough from the target — between 10 feet and 15 feet — to ensure the Taser probes create a circuit large enough to stop someone.

When used properly, Hughes said, suspects who are Tasered avoid serious injury.

Researcher Lee stressed that the study does not advocate for the abandonment of Tasers. Its larger purpose is to show that Tasers may not be completely safe and need more third-party study.

"It's definitely better than shooting somebody," he said, but "there may be some inherent dangers and more research needs to be done to find out how safe or unsafe the device is."

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