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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

EDITORIAL: Zapped by taser backers

December 7, 2011
RICK MARTINEZ, News Observer

I figured the call I made last week for North Carolina's law enforcement agencies to ban their officers from using stun guns and Tasers would be a lonely one. I just didn't realize how lonely. Opposition to my proposal has been nearly universal.

Eric Pagone sent an e-mail that sums up the blowback I've received electronically and in person. Pagone wrote: "Tasers are part of a force continuum. When you remove a tool such as the Taser, which is at the higher end of the continuum, an officer may be forced to resort to deadly force (gun). ... an overwhelmingly large percentage of the population (100%), are susceptible to negative health effects when struck by gunfire.

"Statistics you are referring to sound like people who say some car accident victims died as a result of wearing their seatbelts. The positive impact clearly outweighs the negative for seatbelts and Tasers. For those who don't want to be Tased ... don't live a high risk life style in which run-ins with the law are the norm."

Not surprisingly, I also received a nasty, but professional, response from Steve Tuttle of Taser International, who may have felt blindsided by my conclusions after I called the company inquiring about the status of a $9.2 million federal court judgment against it in the 2008 death of 17-year-old Darryl Turner in Charlotte. For the record, here is Tuttle's original response to me.

"TASER believes the court erred in not allowing evidence of contributory negligence or a jury instruction on contributory negligence by Mr. Turner which would be a complete bar to recovery under North Carolina law. As a result we are seeking judgment to overturn the verdict."

Tuttle also objected to my conclusion that a Taser jolt from a Scotland Neck police officer rendered 61-year-old Roger Anthony brain dead. Tuttle has me on that point. Only a medical official can make that determination. Still, both Tuttle and I agree a Taser was "involved" (Tuttle's word) in events that resulted in Anthony's brain death and expiration after he was taken off life support a few days after his arrest.

Tuttle, and others, accused me of not doing my homework. Not true. I studied the research I could find, including an often-cited study from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center which concluded that Tasers were overwhelmingly safe. But I took Tuttle's advice and read two National Institute of Justice (NIJ) reports issued earlier this year: "Study of Deaths Following Electro Muscular Disruption" and "Police Use Of Force, Tasers And Other Less-Lethal Weapons."

I can see why stun gun supporters like these studies. Both say the chances of a person being killed by a Taser shock are remote, and the report on police use emphatically declares that Tasers lessen the threat of injury to officers and suspects.

However, both also conclude that for some people, a stun gun jolt can be lethal. The question for the officer on the beat is, which people?

Thankfully, some police have implemented restrictions based on research that stun guns can be harmful. Of the 500 police departments surveyed by NIJ, 31 percent forbid stun gun use on pregnant women, 26 percent against drivers of moving vehicles, 23 percent against handcuffed suspects, 23 percent against people in elevated areas (to prevent fall injuries) and 10 percent against the elderly.

Another concern I expressed was that law enforcement officers may reach for their stun guns because it's easy and not because the situation warrants it. NIJ has the same worry. During interviews with officers and trainers, researchers heard comments that hinted at "lazy cop" syndrome, meaning some law enforcement officials found it easier to zap a citizen than to use conflict resolution skills or physically intervene. In its police use study, NIJ found stun guns can be used "too much and too often."

Both reports recommend more study, training and guidelines. Factoring in increased exposure to lawsuits, I call on police chiefs to consider this simple question - are stun guns more trouble than they're worth?

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