The Trouble with Tasers

By Cusac, Anne-Marie | The Progressive, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Tasers


Cusac, Anne-Marie, The Progressive


High-powered tasers are the new fad in law enforcement. They are becoming ever more prevalent even as their safety is increasingly in question. The proliferation of tasers in police departments across the country has led to unconventional uses. Among those hit by tasers are elderly people, children as young as one year old, people apparently suffering diabetic shock and epileptic seizures, people already bound in restraints, and hospital mental patients. Police used tasers against protesters at the 2003 Miami Free Trade Area of the Americas demonstration and against rowdy fans at the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. School systems are employing the weapons, with some officers carrying tasers even in elementary schools.

But doctors, reporters, and human rights groups have raised questions about the safety of the devices, which shoot two barbs designed to pierce the skin. The barbs are at the end of electrical wires carrying 50,000 volts. Last summer, The New York Times reported that at least fifty people had died within a short time after being hit with a taser. By November, when Amnesty International released its own report, that number had risen to more than seventy.

In February, Chicago police used the device against a fourteen-year-old boy, who went into cardiac arrest but survived, and a fifty-four-year-old man, who died. The Chicago Police Department, which had recently purchased 100 of the devices, decided not to distribute them until it had investigated the incidents.

The Department of Justice is conducting its own investigation into the safety of the devices. It has selected researchers at Wake Forest University and the University of Wisconsin to run independent taser studies.

Taser International, the biggest manufacturer of the weapon, denies that its product caused any deaths. The company insists that its products are safe. "The ADVANCED TASER has a lower injury rate than other nonlethal weapons and has had no reported long-term, adverse aftereffects," says the company website.

Early tasers, those used from the 1970s until the early 1990s, were lower wattage devices. "The original taser operated on only five watts and was followed by Air Taser on seven watts," says the November Amnesty International report.

William Bozeman, a medical doctor at the Wake Forest University department of emergency medicine, is investigating the safety of tasers for the Justice Department. "They've increased the amount of wattage that's delivered," he says. Above fourteen watts, he says, you get "electro-muscular disruption."

According to Taser International, that's the point. The "uncontrollable contraction of the muscle tissue" allows the taser "to physically debilitate a target regardless of pain tolerance or mental focus," says the company website. The tasers "directly tell the muscles what to do: contract until the target is in the fetal position on the ground."

Taser International introduced its "Air Taser" in 1994. Then, in 1998, "the company began Project Stealth: the development of the higher-power weapons to stop extremely combative, violent individuals who were impervious to nonlethal weapons." Project Stealth led to the M26, a taser with twenty-six watts of power.

In 2003, Taser International started selling an additional version of the twenty-six-watt taser, called the X26, which is light enough for police officers to carry at all times.

Police like tasers, sometimes for good reason. Greg Pashley, officer and spokesperson for the Portland Police Department, says the taser "is a tool that is effective in ending what could otherwise be a violent conflict without injuries. We're finding that time and again."

Many other officers add praise of their own. "It's increasingly a less lethal weapon of choice," says Scott Folsom, police chief at the University of Utah. "It doesn't have residual effects. It's proven to be a relatively safe and effective tool. …

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