The Taser is the ideal law enforcement tool - a weapon that can bring an unruly, maybe dangerous suspect down at a safe distance without causing death or any lasting harm.
Anyway, that's the marketing pitch. And it's one that police departments all over the country have bought with enthusiasm. But evidence is accumulating that Tasers and other varieties of electric "stun guns" are not nearly as safe as the manufacturers' advertising and PR campaigns want everybody to believe.
Almost 200 people have died in the past five years in the United States after being shocked with Tasers by police. It's probably impossible to pinpoint how many deaths are caused by Tasers because in most instances where death follows their use there are many possible contributing factors - drugs, alcohol, and what medical examiners call "excited delirium," a state of extreme agitation that can lead to sudden death.
But it seems reasonable to assume that being hit with an electric shock powerful enough to make your muscles convulse uncontrollably could be hazardous to your health - especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition that the cops have no way of knowing about, and that you might not be aware of yourself.
Despite the growing safety concerns about Tasers, police departments continue the rush to adopt them. The Bend, Redmond and Prineville police already have Tasers. The Deschutes County Sheriff's Department has bought some and is planning to put them into service this spring. The Oregon State Police also are getting on the Taser bandwagon.
In light of the increasing evidence about the risks of Tasers, Central Oregon police departments that already have the weapons should take time to review and maybe rewrite their policies on when and how they should be used.
Such policies should clearly prohibit delivering excessive multiple and/or prolonged Taser shocks to suspects - a practice that Taser International itself has warned against. They should specify that the Taser is a potentially deadly device and should be used only when a suspect presents a credible threat of harm to others or himself. (That would bar the use of a Taser on somebody who's already under restraint.) And they should stipulate that Tasers are not to be used on children, the elderly or the obviously infirm.
For the sheriff's department and the OSP, we have one short question: What's the hurry? Those agencies have gotten along okay without Tasers for many years. It won't hurt to take adequate time to thoroughly examine the issues of safety and effectiveness.
The U.S. Justice Department has undertaken an investigation of more than 100 Taser-related deaths and is scheduled to report its findings this year. At a minimum, police agencies thinking about adopting Tasers should hold off until they have seen and evaluated that report.
"Everybody else is doing it" is a reason kids give for doing something foolish, but it's not a good basis for grownups to be making life-or-death decisions. It's time for law enforcement to give "TaserMania" THE BOOT.