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Sunday, September 04, 2011

As Taser use rises, so do questions about risks of fatalities

September 4, 2011
James Halpin, FayObserver

The prongs from the Taser latched onto Martin Mitchell Sr.'s side, feeling like a knife had stabbed into his torso. Mitchell says he instantly went limp and started convulsing, nearly swallowing his tongue.

"My whole left side went numb," said Mitchell, 45, who was zapped Tuesday by a Cumberland County sheriff's deputy after allegedly assaulting his 16-year-old son outside Westover Middle School. "I couldn't even remember too much that happened, you understand. That's how bad that thing messed me up. I kept blinking in and out."

Mitchell, who disputes deputies' account that he was punching his son and that he ran at one of the intervening deputies, says he believes officers are increasingly likely to use Tasers because they are less lethal than firearms.

Industry watchdogs say Mitchell is not too far off the mark.

Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said the group has seen an increase in Taser use throughout the state and the country, partly because Tasers have become ubiquitous in law enforcement. As a result, Tasers are increasingly being used in situations where officers would not have pulled a firearm - situations that in some cases don't require much force at all, she said.

"Tasers are weapons that can be very effective if you have a suspect who is putting the officer in danger or someone else at risk of harm," Parker said. "But they're often used in situations where an officer issues an order and the suspect doesn't comply in some way. It's kind of used as pain compliance. ... That's very dangerous."

Fayetteville police have been using Tasers since 1996, and numbers released last week show that their use has been on the rise in recent years. Officers deployed Tasers 20 times in 2007 and only 16 times in 2008. But they stunned suspects 31 times in 2009 and 60 times last year, according to police numbers. Police had used their Tasers 25 times so far through August of this year.

Fayetteville police spokesman Gavin MacRoberts said Taser usage has been on the rise for several reasons. There are more officers in the field than before because the department has been nearly fully staffed in recent years, and those officers are equipped with newer, smaller Tasers that they keep on their belts, rather than in their patrol cars, he said.

Police also have been encountering more incidents each year that meet the department's requirements for using Tasers, MacRoberts said. That has to do in part with police encountering an increasing number of suspects under the influence of drugs or alcohol or with mental-health problems, he said.

Last week, the department pulled all of its Taser M26 units off the streets for testing following the death of 56-year-old Michael Wade Evans, a political activist who died after he was stunned by police on Aug. 24. Police say he was acting erratically and trying to jump on vehicles on Eastern Boulevard.

Evans was pronounced dead at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center. His cause of death remains under investigation.

Cumberland deaths

Evans is the third person to die in Cumberland County after being hit with a stun gun.

In 2005, a Cumberland County deputy hit 52-year-old Richard McKinnon with a Taser. McKinnon, who had crashed his van after trying to elude deputies, was soaked in gasoline and burst into flames.

Otis C. Anderson, 36, died after Fayetteville police used a Taser to subdue him in January 2008. An autopsy found he had a lethal amount of cocaine in his system.

Earlier this year, Brandon Jolvon "Red" Bethea, a 24-year-old schizophrenic inmate at the Harnett County Jail, died after being shocked with a stun gun multiple times, according to an autopsy report. Deputies left the Fayetteville man lying unchecked on the floor for about 20 minutes before discovering that he was unconscious.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner concluded following the autopsy that his death was caused by "complications of conducted energy device application."

Eddie Caldwell Jr., executive vice president and general counsel of the North Carolina Sheriffs' Association, noted that many deaths associated with Tasers are not caused by the shock but rather by other causes, such as drug overdoses. He said his understanding is that Tasers are safe when used on healthy people and that many law enforcement agencies require officers who carry them to be shocked as part of the certification process so they understand the consequences.

Tasers can help reduce the likelihood of a struggle - and the risk of injury to officers and suspects - during an arrest of an aggressive person, he said.

"If you've got a suspect with a butcher knife coming at you, as an officer, you have the legal right to kill him. But if you've got a Taser, you can tase him and that's more humane and a much better outcome for the suspect," Caldwell said. "The Taser is a device that, as much as anything, helps the citizen who is at that point belligerent and uncooperative."

Taser International says it has sold more than a 500,000 stun guns to more than 16,000 law enforcement and military agencies around the world. The company maintains that its weapons protect life.

Tasers reduce excessive use-of-force complaints and save lives while reducing the risk of injuries to suspects and police, Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said.

"Although no use-of-force device is risk free - including Taser technology - when used properly, medical and law enforcement experts have concluded that Taser technology is among the most effective response to resistance tools available," Tuttle said. "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."


In May, the National Institute of Justice published a study of nearly 300 people who died after being shot with stun guns. In the vast majority of those cases, the devices "played no role in the death," according to the study, which reviewed 22 cases in which a stun gun was listed as a cause of death.

The study found that the risk of death when police deploy stun guns is less than 0.25 percent and says that "there is no conclusive medical evidence" that short-term electric shocks cause a high risk of serious injury or death in healthy, non-stressed and non-intoxicated people.

"However, there are groups who may be at risk for sudden death and those who are more vulnerable to physical insult," the report says. "These disparate but occasionally overlapping groups include small children, those with diseased hearts, the elderly and pregnant women."

It advised officers to avoid continuously shocking suspects for longer than 15 seconds but concluded that law enforcement officers do not need to refrain from using the devices to arrest uncooperative or combative subjects so long as the devices are used properly.

Amnesty International, which counts more than 460 deaths following Taser use since June 2001, responded by saying that the report underscores the need for strict limits on the use of shock weapons.

The group expressed concern that many of the study's nearly 300 people who died after being stunned did not appear to present a serious threat at the time they were shocked.

"Amnesty International believes that, apart from safety concerns, electro-shock weapons are particularly open to abuse as they are easy to use and they can inflict severe pain at the push of a button without leaving substantial marks," the group said in a statement.


The ACLU's Parker pointed to the death of 17-year-old Darryl Wayne Turner - a teen who suffered a fatal arrhythmia in Charlotte in 2008 after being shocked for 37 seconds by a Taser X26 - as an example of how Tasers can be dangerous when police hold the trigger down.

Dr. Douglas Zipes, an electrophysiologist and former director of the Division of Cardiology at the Krannert Institute of Cardiology, filed an expert report in a civil lawsuit against Taser by Turner's family. In the report, Zipes cites studies on animals conducted before Turner's death that showed Tasers have the potential to produce heart arrhythmias and ventricular fibrillation in the hearts of pigs.

"The medical hazard of ECD shocks resulting in cardiac arrest was foreseeable prior to March 2008 and appropriate testing should have been done to investigate this possibility before placing these products on the market," Zipes wrote.

In September 2009, Taser issued new warnings indicating that the risk of ventricular fibrillation following shocks is 1 in 100,000, he wrote. A federal jury in July awarded Turner's family a $10 million judgment against Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Taser because of his death.

The day after that award, a 21-year-old man died after a Taser was used on him, prompting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to pull its Tasers from use pending a review.


Pat Norris, president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said the association recommends that departments have policies in place regarding Taser use, but does not itself issue guidelines.

Law enforcement in Cumberland County do have such policies. The Fayetteville Police Department's policy addresses when it is appropriate for officers to use their stun guns. Those situations include:

When officers need to control violent subjects when deadly force does not appear to be necessary.

When conventional tactics including verbal commands and firm grip control are ineffective.

When officers cannot safely get close to a subject.

To keep a person from committing suicide or hurting himself.

After Evans' death, however, the department said it plans to review its Taser policies and procedures, in addition to inspecting the weapons. Police say they have no reason to believe the Taser that was used in Evans' arrest malfunctioned, but they were pulling the devices for inspection as a precaution.

"In light of recent incidents in not only here, but in other jurisdictions as well, it was decided that it was the prudent and responsible action to ensure all Tasers are in proper working condition," said MacRoberts, the Fayetteville police spokesman.

The weapons are being sent to the manufacturer to be tested to ensure the Tasers are operating within factory specifications for output and also to verify that their data recording systems are properly functioning, he said.

It was not known how long it would take Taser to complete the inspections, MacRoberts said.

Numbers for the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office use of Tasers were not available as of Friday.

Debbie Tanna, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said deputies have no plans to change their policy on using Tasers.

Deputies are sometimes confronted with aggressive people while alone, and Tasers offer them a way to subdue the suspects without bloodshed or causing permanent injury, she said.

Deputies carry batons, pepper spray and Tasers, but not all deputies carry all of those tools, Tanna said. When confronted with a threatening situation, the deputies must make a split-second decision on how best to negate the threat, she said.

"Our deputies don't have the luxury, in most cases, of making a decision by sitting around and mulling about it," Tanna said. "We feel that (Tasers) are safe. We like the fact that it is an option for us when trying to subdue a violent suspect or in a situation that is out of control."

In 2008, the ACLU helped start the N.C. Taser Safety Project, which sought to have law enforcement agencies develop policies to ensure people are safely subdued when Tasers must be used. Parker said that because of a number of recent high-profile cases involving Tasers, the ACLU is planning to send out a new records request to all 100 sheriff's offices in the state and 25 police departments seeking an update on their policies on using Tasers. Law enforcement agencies should have policies limiting Taser use on the old, young and sick, Parker said.

They also should prohibit officers from holding the trigger down or repeatedly pressing the trigger when unnecessary, she said.

"It can be an effective weapon, but there ought to be reasonable limitations and restrictions put on those weapons to keep people safe," Parker said. "I think most of the time law enforcement is trying to do the best job that they can. But Tasers are still relatively new, and I think a lot of times people aren't aware of the risks."

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