January 19, 2011
By JASON TRAHAN, Dallas Morning News
A Dallas police officer has filed the latest in a string of lawsuits around the country that claim jolts of electricity received during Taser training caused fractured backs and other severe injuries.
The makers of the popular stun gun, however, say that their products are safe and credit them with saving lives by providing officers with a nonlethal option to guns when confronting unruly criminals.
Dallas police Officer Andrew Butler’s lawsuit, filed Jan. 6 against Taser International, is thought to be the first of its kind in Texas. He alleges Taser did not fully disclose the risks associated with being shot with the device in the academy to his police trainers. The city of Dallas is not a defendant.
“I love my department. I love being a cop. But I dodged a bullet,” said Butler, who was able to return to patrol after he had surgery to replace a fractured vertebra. “I can’t live with having knowledge that this can harm an officer and not do something.”
The dangers of Tasers have been known for years. In Dallas, the deaths of at least two drug-addled suspects who were stunned during arrests have been connected in part to shocks from the devices.
But in recent years, police officers around the country have begun filing lawsuits claiming they were hurt when taking a Taser shot. The stun guns are regularly used on recruits in training at many police academies.
“That has been the secret injury that Taser doesn’t like to talk about,” said Robert Haslam, a Fort Worth attorney who is chairman of the American Association for Justice’s Taser Litigation Group.
Several dozen lawsuits by police officers have been filed, but only one has gone to trial. Taser prevailed in that 2005 Arizona case because the officer had a pre-existing back condition, said John Dillingham, the Phoenix attorney who represented the injured former Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy. Dillingham said the half-dozen other cases of injured officers which he’s handled have been dismissed, but he declined to talk about settlement agreements.
“There’s no reason for an officer to take a hit in training,” Dillingham said. “The only reason to demonstrate it is that it works and it’s safe. You don’t need to get shocked to know that.”
Taser has a long history of aggressively fighting legal claims that its devices cause injury or death. When asked about Butler’s suit, spokesman Steve Tuttle said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
“We continue to stand by the independent peer reviewed medical studies that have shown that the Taser electronic control devices are generally safe and effective,” he said.
The company has sold 514,000 devices to more than 15,800 law enforcement and military agencies, Tuttle said. Half of the about 2.3 million times that Tasers have been used were in training environments and other voluntary situations, according to the company.
Some departments require rookies to experience the device before they are allowed to carry it, but others let officers decide for themselves whether they want to take the “ride,” as the 50,000-volt zap is sometimes called.
In Dallas, being stunned is optional, but peer pressure in the hyper macho environment of police training often leaves few bystanders, people familiar with the training say. Fort Worth police require rookies to get zapped, but have logged no injuries, officials there said.
“If Taser were honest with the officers about the incidents of injury, I don’t think that officers would be so willing to get this,” said Mark Haney, Butler’s attorney.
“I’m not saying there’s not a place in the law enforcement for a less-than-lethal option,” said Haney, who also serves as a municipal judge in Pantego. “I think a Taser is better than a 9 mm every time. But police officers need to understand these consequences and limit the risks in training.”
Dallas police Assistant Chief Floyd Simpson, who supervises training, said that he was unaware of cases in which officers around the country had alleged they were hurt by Tasers. He said he would review information in Butler’s case, but had no immediate plans to stop officers from taking voluntary zaps in training.
“I don’t support it or disclaim it, but the philosophy is, you get Tased so you understand what happens physiologically, and so you can testify if need be. But there is no requirement to take the shot. However, in the classes, there’s always a willing participant.”
Prohibiting officers from taking a zap in the academy would put the department in an odd situation where officers routinely use the device on the public, but are not allowed to experience it firsthand, Simpson said.
“All I can say is, we haven’t had an issue doing what we do. I think our trainers are very prudent and are aware of the weapon and its capabilities. Can someone get hurt? Sure,” he said. “But we haven’t had a real big problem with that in Dallas.”
He added, though, that it is possible to have effective training without having officers feel the device’s voltage firsthand. “We get trained with firearms, but I don’t think that anyone has an expectation that officers get shot in order to use it.”
Butler served as a Dallas police officer from 1997 to 2000, but quit to start a family. He re-entered the Dallas police academy as a rookie, and was in Taser training in 2009. He and others in the class signed waivers before they were shocked with the device.
A video of Butler’s training session shows several officers, men and women, volunteering to be stunned. When it was Butler’s turn, an instructor used the device on his lower back. A pair of officers on either side lowered him to the ground as the electricity flowed.
Seconds after the shock was over, Butler, fueled by adrenaline, sprang to his feet, but within hours, the former Marine could barely move his back or arm.
Butler and his attorney say he later had to have surgery to repair fractured vertebrae that were crushed when his back muscles contorted from the Taser shock.
He now has metal plates in his spine, but is back on patrol. “The Taser is a great tool,” he said. “But I’ll never get one of those shocks again. The value is not worth the risk.”
Even Taser’s adversaries in court recognize they have use in police work.
“The number of police officer injuries has been relative low in proportion to the number of Tasers in use,” said Peter Williamson, the California attorney who was part of the legal team that in 2008 was the first in the nation to win a product liability verdict against Taser on behalf of a man who died after he was stunned by police in California.
“But our concern is that the officers be properly apprised of the risks of the devices so they can make informed decisions about how to use them.”
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January 19, 2011