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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Groups debate potential dangers of Tasers

October 31, 2010
Dan Claxton, Missourian

COLUMBIA — With the contentious vote on the prohibition of Taser use in Columbia only days away, experts continue to argue the relative danger of the devices.

Police officials contend that Tasers, when used properly, pose little risk to those they are used against. Opponents say the devices are unreliable and that many factors can make them dangerous.

Detective Jerry Staten is a former Texas police detective that now appears as an expert witness and consultant in Taser-related lawsuits.

Staten said that Tasers deployed correctly are safe. “They are specifically designed to reduce the likelihood of causing serious injury or death,” he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Las Vegas, N.M., Police Chief Garry Gold, who said, “Any mechanical tool is as good as its user. It’s just a tool of choice.”

In June, Gold decided to stop using Tasers in his department. He said the decision wasn’t because of any danger posed by Tasers. Rather, he cited complaints about officers misusing the devices, the growing threat of litigation and the expense of renewing his department’s accreditation.

But Gold said he supports the use of Tasers by law enforcement. “There’s a lot of pros and cons; it’s just dependent on the needs of a particular city,” he said.

Marjorie Lundquist disagrees. An expert on the effects of electricity and radiation on the human body, Lundquist said Tasers too often can be lethal, even though in certain circumstances they can be used without ill effect.

She cited several factors that must be present to keep the risk of serious physical injury from a Taser low:

■It must be administered only on physically fit young adults in good health who are free from drugs, who have no recognized genetic disease and who have not been engaged in vigorous physical activity in the five minutes immediately preceding the Taser shock.
■It must be used only against people whose limbs are not fettered or immobilized in any way.
■The shock should last for no more than five seconds.
Lundquist considers Tasers “very dangerous weapons” because there are many variables involved that police can’t see.

Lundquist said sickle cell trait is one genetic condition that makes Tasers potentially lethal. The trait is most commonly found in people of African ancestry. Lundquist said that even one shock from a Taser can induce a sickle cell crisis, which can be fatal.

Lundquist conducted an extensive study of Taser incidents resulting in death, and found that the more applications of Taser shocks, the greater the likelihood of death.

“My data indicate that it is risky for a person to be shocked more than once," Lundquist said. "And I have concluded that for some people, even one Taser shock is too many."

Lundquist said that when people are shocked with a Taser after being handcuffed, the risk of death increases dramatically because muscle contractions under those conditions are inhibited.

“When a muscle is forced to contract but is physically unable to shorten in length, the only thing that can happen is that the muscle tissue tears,” Lundquist said, adding that it could potentially cause kidney or heart damage, which could lead to death.

The Columbia Police Department recently adopted a set of 52 guidelines for the use of Tasers that includes a prohibition on using Tasers on handcuffed subjects, unless the subject is resisting or showing active aggression.

Lundquist said a major danger in electric shocks is the chemical changes they cause in the body. “What makes Taser shocks most dangerous is the lactic acid that they cause to be released into the blood. This can partially deplete the blood of oxygen,” she said.

Staten argues that it’s all about judgment. “There’s a problem out there with the use of the equipment," he said. "There’s not a problem with the equipment.”

Gold said his department is switching to a less-lethal weapon – the pepperball gun. This weapon fires balls of a pepper-based irritant that burst on impact, allowing an officer to pepper-spray a subject from a distance.

Gold said he believes the pepperball technology is “the next mechanical weapon of choice” that will be used by law enforcement agencies.

Voters in Columbia will decide on Tuesday whether both law enforcement and private individuals will be denied the use but not the possession of Tasers within the city limits. A yes vote will prohibit its use; a no vote will result in no change to the current laws.

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