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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Editorial: Heart-stopping

November 1, 2009
The Frederick News-Post

The Taser people have always focused on not having their Neuromuscular Incapacitation Electronic Control Device resemble a gun. They don't want it to have to be registered as a firearm. Hence, the idea of using compressed air instead of gunpowder to deliver its incapacitating "probes," causing involuntary muscle contractions in recipients and "freezing" them "safely."

It turns out that it's not that easy.

A midmonth advisory issued by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International acknowledged that, depending on your aim, Tasers can freeze someone permanently. Researchers at the company determined that if police taser a person in the chest and near the heart, it can cause serious injury if that person is on drugs.

Apparently it can also cause death, even in people who are not on drugs. Take a cursory look at Amnesty International's List of Deaths Following Use of Stun Weapons in U.S. Law Enforcement June 2001 to August 2008. It logs 351 fatalities during that time. The word "cardiac" as in "cardiac arrest," "cardiac arrhythmia," etc., repeatedly jumps from the pages. It also reigns supreme in a main measurement category that lists the "Time between Taser use and death or cardiac arrest/loss of consciousness" for every incident.

Details read like this: "Died 72 hours later. Shocked twice in chest with darts; struggled (after shocked once in mid-chest) then collapsed and unresponsive. Pronounced dead at hospital; collapsed shortly after shocked in chest. Went into cardiac arrest; was hit by four darts at once including one in face, neck and chest. Suffered cardiac dysrhythmia at scene. Pronounced dead in hospital about an hour later."

In Maryland, as in almost every other state in the nation, the Taser is receiving closer scrutiny. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler formed a Task Force on Electronic Weapons that held two public hearings in April and is expected to issue a report by the end of this year. After the 2007 Taser-related death of 20-year-old Jarrel Gray of Frederick at the hands of a Frederick County Sheriff's Office deputy, the local and state chapters of the NAACP and the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned for an independent investigation of Taser use.

Gray's parents have filed a $145 million wrongful-death lawsuit. It is unclear exactly where the Taser involved in this incident was aimed. Maryland's medical examiner's office said the young man's cause of death was sudden death connected to alcohol intoxication and restraint.

Therein lies the rub. How do we begin to unpack the many variables and mitigating circumstances that can come into play during police altercations that more often than not are fast-moving, dynamic scenarios wherein exact shot placement to a "preferred target zone" cannot be guaranteed.

We now know that something else cannot be guaranteed: the less-than-lethal-force promise once embodied by the Taser.

This latest move by Taser International to educate users via its "Taser Training Bulletin 15.0 Regarding Medical Research Update and Revised Warnings" is well-taken. But all of the training bulletins, updated and revised warnings, and resultant law enforcement policy, procedures and practice revisions can't change one all-too-evident fact.

The Taser is a lethal weapon.

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