Human rights

Death by Taser?
Amnesty International says the use of Taser guns on pregnant women, children as young as 6, handcuffed suspects, a female skinny-dipper and at least one foul-mouthed tree-climber is proof that police officers nationwide are abusing stun-gun technology.

These cases and the deaths of more than 70 people who died after being “tased” have the human-rights organization calling for a ban on the use of electronic Tasers until an independent study concludes the guns are safe and law-enforcement agencies adopt strict policies for their use.

In a report released last week, Amnesty International reviewed 74 fatalities and dozens of other examples where officers used Tasers to subdue people who reportedly posed no serious threat to themselves or others. Amnesty is disturbed by the growing number of fatalities and incidents in which Tasers have been used as a compliance tool or on a suspect already in police custody.

“We really need to slow down for a while. We want police departments to stop using Tasers until it is proven that the guns are not killing people,” says Amnesty’s Edward Jackson.

More than 5,000 U.S. police agencies use Tasers. The hand-held stun guns, manufactured by Arizona-based Taser International, fire two barbed darts that deliver a 50,000-volt shock to incapacitate a person.

A common factor in many of the Taser-related deaths is drug intoxication. In general, coroners tend to list a drug overdose or heart disease as the cause of death. But some medical experts are questioning whether the electrical shock may increase heart failure in cases where individuals are agitated, under the influence of drugs or have underlying health problems such as heart disease.

Taser International says those deaths resulted from drug overdoses or other factors that would have occurred anyway. But in at least five cases, coroners ruled Tasers contributed to a person’s death. And three of them occurred here in Nevada—two involving Las Vegas Metro and one in Washoe County.

In Las Vegas, William Lomax, 26, was fired upon and struck seven times by an officer’s Taser in February. Keith Tucker, 47, was tased in his bedroom as he struggled with officers in August. Both men had drugs in their system. In both instances, a coroner’s inquest cleared the Metro officers, but ruled that the Taser played a role in the deaths.

In Sparks, Washoe County Coroner Vernon McCarty reported that Jacob Lair, 29, who was tased during an altercation with police there in June, died of four identifiable causes, one of which was a Taser gun.

“I would call Taser part of the scenario,” McCarty told the Arizona Republic. “I don’t think you can ignore it.”

In all three cases, Nevada medical examiners ruled that the amount of drugs in each man’s system had not reached a toxic level and was not enough to kill them by itself.

Prior to the Nov. 30 release of the Amnesty International report, Metro studied the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Lomax and Tucker, and revised its policy regarding Taser use by its officers. Among the changes outlined in the new policy, which went into effect Nov. 15: Metro officers are no longer allowed to use the Taser when a person is handcuffed, on someone who is visibly pregnant or to coerce someone into compliance. Officers are also advised not to use the weapon on children, the elderly or those with physical disabilities.

“We have set the standard,” explains police spokesman Sgt. Chris Jones, addressing Amnesty International’s requests. “What they are calling for, we already have in place. We are way ahead of the curve. Tasers aren’t going away.”

In a prepared statement, Taser International CEO Rick Smith expressed disappointment with Amnesty and its demands.

"Anyone living in the real world in which law enforcement officers worldwide have to make split-second life or death decisions knows that Amnesty International’s report and position is out of step with the needs of law enforcement concerning our proven life-saving technology."