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A Silent Killer? As police use of Tasers increases, so do the questions 

Growing up, inventor Jack Cover was a fan of the fictional boy detective and scientist Tom Swift. So when he came up with a new

Growing up, inventor Jack Cover was a fan of the fictional boy detective and scientist Tom Swift. So when he came up with a new device that could bring down people at a distance with a jolt of electricity, he playfully named it "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle."

TASER, for short.

It's a funny name, but civil libertarians don't think there's anything funny about the growing popularity of Tasers among police and corrections officers.

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"There have been no independent studies of the health effects of Tasers - none," says David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. "And there is no federal agency that has the authority to regulate the Taser industry to insure that these devices are really safe. Given that lack of regulatory authority, and given the number of deaths that have occurred, we strongly believe that police need to assume that any time a Taser is discharged it may result in an unintended death."

But police officials say the risk has been exaggerated and that the Taser is a valuable tool that reduces fatalities and serious injuries among cops and civilians alike.

"They greatly cut down on the number of injuries that people incur while resisting police officers and the number of injuries to police officers," says Lt. Todd Fletcher of the Bend Police Department, which has been using Tasers for about three years and now has more than 40 of them in service. "After a number of years of reading studies on Taser use, I really believe that having Tasers as a use-of-force option really does save lives."

The Taser delivers an electric shock to its target with two small darts attached to the device by fine wires. When the user pulls the trigger, the Taser fires the darts by means of a compressed nitrogen cartridge. The effective distance is up to 35 feet depending on the model. The one the Bend PD and most other police departments use, the Taser X26, shoots 25 feet.

When the darts stick into, or close to, a person's skin, the Taser sends a rapid series of electric pulses that cause his muscles to contract uncontrollably and temporarily disable him. Opponents of Tasers often claim that they shock victims with 50,000 volts, but that's misleading; 50,000 volts is only the strength of the preliminary charge that establishes a conducting path for the actual shock. The jolt the target actually receives is in the neighborhood of 1,200 volts.

Also, the deadliness of an electric current depends not just on voltage but also on amperage. Think of a water pipe: The voltage is the water pressure in the pipe and the amperage is the volume of water flowing through. Just as a stream of water shooting under pressure from a soda straw isn't as powerful as a stream shooting under the same pressure from a fire hose, a high-voltage current at low amperage isn't as deadly as a current with the same voltage but much higher amps. The electric pulses put out by a Taser are approximately 1.9 milliamperes - less than two one-thousandths of an amp.

Is the Taser deadly? The question is complicated, and the short answer seems to be: "No - except when it is."

Amnesty International says it has recorded 291 deaths of individuals struck by police Tasers in the United States and Canada from June 2001 through September 2007. In nearly all cases, medical examiners attributed the cause of death not to the Taser shock but to other circumstances - alcohol intoxication, drug abuse or "excited delirium," an imprecise and controversial term to describe a suspect who's in a hyper-agitated condition. (Some civil rights groups say "excited delirium" is a phony diagnosis invented to explain away police-caused deaths, including those involving Tasers. We'll come back to that later.)

Dr. Patrick Chou, a cardiologist in Cleveland, OH, performed experiments on anesthetized pigs that seemed to show a Taser didn't deliver a shock strong enough to induce ventricular fibrillation - a rapid, uncoordinated fluttering of the heart muscle that quickly leads to death. But he tempered his findings with some strong caveats:

"Because the standard Taser output proved on average to be one-fourth what was needed to cause fibrillation, one is tempted to conclude that the device is fundamentally safe. But there's another factor to keep in mind: a large portion of the violent individuals with whom the police have to deal are under the influence of cocaine, methamphetamine, or other stimulants. So the Taser has to be safe even for those whose physiology is distorted by the presence of such powerful drugs."

Further complicating the issue, police often administer more than one Taser shock to a suspect. After the initial shot has been fired, the cop can keep sending juice through the wires as long as they remain attached and he keeps squeezing the trigger. And the Taser also can be applied directly to the suspect in what's called "drive stun" mode to deliver additional painful shocks after the barbs are removed.

Taser International, the largest manufacturer of Tasers for police and the military, itself acknowledged in a 2005 training bulletin that such use of the weapon could be hazardous: "Repeated, prolonged, and/or continuous exposure(s) to the TASER electrical discharge may cause strong muscle contractions that may impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the probes are placed across the chest or diaphragm. Users should avoid prolonged, extended, uninterrupted discharges or extensive multiple discharges whenever practicable ... "

The problem with getting a handle on the Taser fatality question is that in most of the deaths there are many possible contributing factors, and it's difficult - if not impossible - to determine how much the Taser was to blame for the fatal outcome.

A sad illustration of this is the story of Nicholas Hanson. In January of last year, Hanson was a 22-year-old student at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Police went to his apartment in response to a neighbor's report that he was suicidal. When they entered the apartment they found Hanson lying on the floor, but conscious.

According to the Ashland Police Department report, Hanson - who was unarmed - then got up, yelled an obscenity and started to move toward the officers. One cop shouted at him to get on the ground. When Hanson didn't comply, the cop dropped him with a shot from his Taser X26.

Hanson was taken to a hospital, where he died about two hours later. The county medical examiner ruled that the death was a suicide, caused by an overdose of a medication Hanson had taken before the cops arrived.

Hanson's death prompted the Oregon ACLU to review all instances of Taser use by the Ashland Police from January 2004 through December 2006. In all but one of the six cases, the ACLU concluded that the use of Tasers was "not justified."

The Hanson case, the ACLU wrote in its September 2007 report, was an example of "the extreme misuse of a Taser" and was "the result of the inclination of Ashland police officers to use this potentially lethal weapon excessively." It also stated: "It is difficult to understand the certainty with which the County Medical Examiner determined that the Taser 'had not played a part' in the death."

The Bush Justice Department - not exactly renowned as a shining champion of civil liberties - is concerned enough about the issue that in June 2006 it launched an investigation of more than 100 deaths believed to be associated with the use of Tasers and other "conducted energy devices," or CEDs. The results of that probe are due this year.

But the ACLU and others say the manufacturers of the devices have put on such a powerful PR campaign that law enforcement officials tend to ignore or minimize the dangers.

"Because manufacturers of these kinds of stun guns or electric discharge devices maintain that they are completely safe and the use of these devices have not led to any deaths, most police agencies are not thinking about that risk of death," said the Oregon ACLU's Fidanque.

Part of the PR campaign, Fidanque and others say, has been to encourage medical examiners to apply the "excited delirium" diagnosis to otherwise unexplained cases where Taser shocks might have caused or contributed to death. Originally coined to describe a state resulting from heavy cocaine or meth abuse, the term has been generalized to cover any situation in which someone in police custody becomes extremely agitated and suddenly dies. The American Medical Association does not recognize "excited delirium" as a known medical or psychiatric condition.

"It would be an exaggeration to say that term was an invention of Taser International, but it certainly was promoted by Taser International," Fidanque said.

The ACLU, Amnesty International and other critics also say that while there are situations in which Tasers are an appropriate law enforcement tool, police use them too freely, even when there's no danger to officers or other people on the scene.

"It is self-evident that Tasers are less injurious than firearms where officers are confronted with a serious threat that could escalate to deadly force," Amnesty International said in a statement last October. "However, the vast majority of people who have died after being struck by Tasers have been unarmed men who did not pose a threat of death or serious injury when they were electro-shocked. In many cases they appear not to have posed a significant threat at all."

Of the 291 Taser-linked deaths it studied, Amnesty International said it identified only 25 individuals who allegedly had a weapon when they were Tasered, and none them had a firearm.

"What most police agencies are doing routinely is using Tasers to enforce compliance to the orders of a police officer, and we strongly believe that is inappropriate and dangerous," said Fidanque.

What the civil rights advocates basically want is for the police to treat the Taser as a potentially deadly weapon. In its report following the Hanson case, the Oregon ACLU offered policy recommendations for use of Tasers, saying they should be used "only by authorized trained personnel to subdue or control a person whom the officer reasonably believes:

Creates an immediate, credible threat to the physical safety of the officer, another person, or the individual himself/herself; and

Unless prompt action is taken to immobilize the person, there is a substantial likelihood the situation could lead to the death or physical injury of the officer, another person, or the individual himself/herself."

The Bend PD's policy on the use of Tasers gives local cops a bit more leeway. According to Lt. Fletcher, the device can be used on "active resistors" or "ominous resistors." An active resistor, he explained, is a suspect who's trying to escape, while an ominous resistor is "somebody who is assaultive or attempting to assault by biting, kicking, punching and so forth."

In light of all the unresolved questions surrounding the safety of Tasers, in 2004 Amnesty International called on American police agencies to "suspend their deployment of Tasers pending a rigorous, independent inquiry into their use and effects." The call was ignored; over the next three years the number of police departments using Tasers increased from about 7,000 to more than 11,000.

Last fall, the organization instead called on "all governments and law enforcement agencies to either cease using Tasers, and similar devices, pending the results of thorough studies into their use and effects, or to limit their use to situations where officers would otherwise be justified in resorting to firearms where no lesser alternatives are available."

That appeal too seems unlikely to be heeded, at least any time soon; more police departments are joining the Taser club all the time. Locally, in addition to Bend, the Redmond and Prineville police departments already are using Tasers in the field. Two more that look likely to do so soon are the Deschutes County Sheriff's Department and the Oregon State Police.

Capt. Mark Mills of the sheriff's department said the department has bought eight Tasers and plans to deploy them after it develops guidelines for their use.

"We should have our people trained probably by the end of March or the first of April, and then based on our policy and procedures being approved by the sheriff and our legal counsel we'll implement the use of them," he said. "Three will be assigned to corrections and transport and five to the patrol division. Our idea is we would have one in each of our four patrol areas and one kind of floating, available as needed."

"We have just recently trained 20 of our troopers from different areas around the state as part of a program to evaluate the use of the Tasers," said Lt. Gregg Hastings at Oregon State Police headquarters in Portland. Tasers already have been used in a couple of situations in Bend and Eugene, he said, and "they proved to be extremely helpful in preventing an incident from escalating into an injury situation."

After a six-month trial period the OSP will make a decision on whether to use Tasers more widely, Hastings said, and so far the results have been good. "I think so far we're encouraged by the times when our troopers have had to use the equipment and the results of that," he said. "It has been real positive so far."

Meanwhile, the Bend Police Department - whose officers used Tasers 42 times last year - has no plans to stop using Tasers or change its policies, and it's getting no public pressure to do so.

Asked whether there have been any complaints from citizens about the use of Tasers, Fletcher replied: "None - none. As a matter of fact, before we went to full implementation there were a lot of people who would ask our officers, 'Why don't you have a Taser?'"

"It comes back to the number and types of suspect injuries that otherwise occur," he added. In fact, he pointed out, injuries to suspects have dropped since Tasers were adopted, from about 50% of all incidents in 2005 to only 38% in 2007.

Critics say they don't necessarily want police to stop using Tasers, but they want them to use them more judiciously - and to weigh the benefits against the potential consequences more carefully.

"To administer an electric shock that is strong enough to disable someone's motor function - it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out it can stop someone's heart," Fidanque said. "No one can predict when it is going to result in death. ... We're just saying police agencies need to open their eyes and understand there are large risks associated with the use of these devices, and therefore their use should be extremely limited."

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