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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Tasers: Deadly or useful devices?

November 1, 2009
Jerry Mitchell, Clarion Ledger

Hundreds of Americans, including several in Mississippi, have died after being shocked with high-voltage stun guns touted as a nonlethal way to subdue suspects.

But world-renowned pathologist Michael Baden of New York City warns these high-voltage devices "can be a deadly weapon - just like a gun."

Since 2001, more than 351 people have died after being shocked with stun guns, according to information gathered by Amnesty International. The group has called for these weapons to be restricted or suspended until further research can be done.

As recently as June, officials from Taser International, the largest manufacturer of these stun guns, declared the Taser incapable of causing death, saying just because the devices were used on people who later died doesn't prove the Tasers caused the deaths.

But earlier this month, Taser officials advised law enforcement officers for the first time to avoid shooting the weapons at a suspect's chest because of the controversy over whether they affect the heart.

The company has never said Tasers are risk-free, said Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle. "But we've found the Taser is the safer response to resistance when compared to traditional use of force, such as batons, nightsticks, punches and kicks."

Yet at least five people have died in Mississippi after law enforcement officers used Tasers on the suspects reportedly resisting arrest or causing a disturbance.

Tuttle notes in these and other such cases authorities have concluded the devices weren't to blame.

In a number of wrongful death lawsuits, pathologists testifying on behalf of Taser have said people died of "excited delirium" - a term popularized in the 1980s to explain sudden deaths associated with cocaine.

A 2006 report co-published by the Justice Department described this state as one of extreme excitement and agitation, hostility and exceptional strength, along with a life-threatening rise in body temperature.

Tuttle cited a case involving a man in Philadelphia who was naked and high when he was shocked with a Taser. The man later died. "He was overheating, overdosing on cocaine," he said.

But last year, Taser lost its first case at trial when a California jury ordered the company to pay the family of Robert Heston $1 million in actual damages and $5.2 million in punitive damages after Salinas police shocked him multiple times with the weapon on Feb. 20, 2005.

The jury cleared the officers of any liability and concluded Heston, who was high on meth, was 85 percent responsible for his own death. That means Taser will have to pay 15 percent of the $1 million but all the punitive damages.

Baden said to accept the Taser industry's contention these more than 351 deaths "are really the result of excited delirium that occurs independent of Taser use and coincidentally at the same time as Taser use requires the willing suspension of disbelief. Many of my colleagues do accept this contention. I do not."

Excited delirium isn't recognized by the medical community in general or the psychiatric community in particular, he said. "It is a diagnosis that remains limited to deaths in official custody."

He recently examined a case in which 21-year-old Baron Pikes was stunned by a Taser after he tried to run from police in Winnfield, La., in January 2008. Pikes' death was ruled a homicide, and then-officer Scott Nugent is charged with manslaughter.

Baden concluded Pikes' death "was directly caused by the cumulative effects of approximately nine 50,000-volt electroshocks from a conductive electric weapon administered during an approximately 30-minute time period after he had been handcuffed."

According to the coroner's report, Pikes stopped twitching after the seventh time he was shocked.

Winnfield police said Taser officials had told them multiple shocks didn't affect a person.

Tuttle said that while "Taser International stands behind the safety of its life-saving technology," there needs to be "clear use-of-force policies, stringent oversight and recurrent certified training."

Lamar County Sheriff Danny Rigel, who has equipped all 41 of his deputies with Tasers, said proper training is critical. "It's a tool. You don't just give a gun to an officer and say, 'Go fight crime.'"

Rigel keeps four Taser instructors on his staff.

Training includes getting shocked - something he said he also went through. "It lets you know what the effects are," Rigel said.

Tasers now record the time, date and duration of the use of the device, Tuttle said.

Mississippi has seen cases where authorities tortured people with stun guns.

In April, William and Jeffrey Rogers - a father and son who were Tippah County sheriff's deputies - went to federal prison for shocking inmate Jimmy Hunsucker Jr. repeatedly with a Taser.

Hunsucker, who had been arrested on a DUI charge in June 2007, had allegedly cursed and threatened deputies. Deputies used the Taser on him until he lost control of his bowels.

In another case in February 2006, 40-year-old suspect Jessie Lee Williams Jr. was beaten to death in the booking room of the Harrison County jail. Several burns caused by a Taser were found on his body, according to testimony.

Former jailer Ryan Teel is serving a life sentence in federal prison for charges related to Williams' killing.

Seven states have banned the weapons, but in Mississippi civilians can obtain one without a permit or background check.

"To the extent it has become a potentially deadly device, I think it's something the Legislature may look at placing restrictions on," said state Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg.

Justice Department officials have warned against multiple shocks by the Taser but found "no conclusive medical evidence within the state of current research that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of (Taser) exposure."

Tuttle pointed to several studies showing the use of Tasers reduced the number of the shootings by officers.

Rigel said he can vouch for the fact the devices save lives.

"I know of three different instances where we prevented 'suicide-by-cop,'" said Rigel, who took office in 2004. "We were able to take each subject into custody with no harm to him."

Tasers have reduced the number of brutality claims as well as workers' compensation claims, too, Rigel said, "because you don't have to fight people to take them into custody."

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