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If tasers are nonlethal, why are so many winding up dead?

By James W. Slater Published: September 3, 2014

Every year hundreds of Americans are killed by police.  From 2009 to 2014, more than 196 of those deaths have been by stun gun, commonly called a Taser or a CED (Conducted Energy Device).   Many of these deaths have been ruled justifiable homicides.

A justifiable homicide is defined as “killing without evil or criminal intent for which there is no one to blame” and as “a no-fault homicide that ordinarily involves the death of someone under circumstances of necessity or duty.”

Between 2001 and 2008, 351 people in the United States died after being shocked by police, according to Amnesty International.  Adding this to the 196 whom reportedly died after being “Tasered” from 2009 to 2014, and there have been a total of at least 547 deaths by Taser in 13 years.  

Amnesty International suspects the figure is higher as the 2014 count only goes through February and police departments are not required to submit information regarding the use of deadly force by its officers.  The human rights advocacy groups, Amnesty International, wants law enforcement using these weapons to limit deployment only to life-threatening situations or where there is a threat of serious injury.

Medical experts have found the risk of adverse effects from Taser shocks is higher in people who suffer from a heart condition or whose symptoms are compromised due to drug intoxication or after a struggle.  Adverse effects can happen very quickly without warning and be impossible to reverse.  Many families have sued law enforcement officials who used Tasers to subdue their loved ones, many from reportedly minor offenses, who died from the experience.

Ohio Family Sues

Earlier this month a Cincinnati, Ohio area family sued Hamilton County in the Taser death of 59-year-old Gary Roell, Sr., a mentally ill, unarmed man who was shot with a Taser while being arrested.   Police responded to a complaint that Roell was acting “crazy” and destroying property.

The lawsuit says the officers used excessive force and that the three deputies who responded to the call were not properly trained for encounters with the mentally unstable.  The suit said police fired the Taser “clearly outside the preferred target zone established by the Taser manufacturer.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil said the Taser hit the man “in the backside,” but the lawsuit says Roell was hit in the chest and stopped breathing minutes after police handcuffed him in preparation for taking him into custody.  The incident occurred Aug. 13, 2013.  The family seeks a jury trial and compensation for Roell’s children and widow, who was out-of-town when the tasering occurred.

Tasers are used in two modes.  In the firing or “dart” mode, where two barbs attached to two wires carry a high voltage charge and the shocks cause total “momentary neuro-muscular incapacitation.”  The weapon has a range of 35 feet in this mode.  In the driver stun mode, the device is pressed directly against part of the suspect’s body and is intended to deliver localized pain.  The Tasers deliver 50,000 volts of electricity per use.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and Amnesty International are not alone in condemning the weapon.  The U.N. Committee Against Torture has said the use of Tasers could constitute a form of torture.

Makers Defend Taser Use

Taser International, a producer of the weapons, claims they are a nonlethal alternative to a firearm and have prevented 124,000 deaths or serious injuries.  When officers carry stun guns, injuries to officers and suspects are lower, according to the Scottsdale, AZ firm which says Tasers are used by 17,000 members of law enforcement and the military in 107 countries.

However, the American Heart Association announced in 2012 that there is a link between stun gun use and heart attacks resulting in death.  In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department cautioned officers to avoid shooting suspects multiple times with Tasers or shooting for prolonged periods.  But the same study found using stun guns to subdue unruly or uncooperative individuals was “appropriate.”

Washington’s Blog (which addresses national, international, social and political issues) perhaps summarized the issue most succinctly.  Their writers combined information from a National Safety Council report, the U. S. Census Bureau and mortality data from the Center for Disease Control to conclude:  Americans are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist.

This article was written by Attorney James W. Slater of the Akron, Ohio law firm of Slater & Zurz LLP.

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