Deaths Spur TASER Debate; Police Embrace Stun Guns, but a Series of Fatalities Brings Calls for Halt to Their Use

By Lateef Mungin and Rosalind Bentley,
The Atlanta Journal Constitutional

The maximum-security inmate fought through six shots of pepper spray and sprinted toward Gwinnett sheriff's Capt. Carl Sims. Sims pulled his weapon, an electroshock gun called a Taser.

One shot, and the prisoner fell, immobilized.

"I thought that he had me, but the Taser dropped him instantly," Sims said. "We have never had a problem with that inmate again."

Results like that have convinced many metro Atlanta law enforcement officers that Tasers are the best way to control unruly prisoners or suspects without seriously injuring them. Fifteen metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies have added Tasers to their arsenals, and others are considering buying the weapons, which cost $400 to $800 apiece. The Georgia State Patrol purchased 200 this year for its 850 troopers. Forest Park police have issued them to all 57 of the city's patrol officers. Altogether, 4,500 law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada use Tasers, says Taser International Inc., the gun's manufacturer.

But as use of Tasers rises, so do concerns about them.

On June 4, about 100 people rallied at the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center to protest the death of an inmate after he was shocked with a Taser. A legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union says Tasers have been involved in too many deaths and calls for more research if law enforcement officers intend to keep using them. Amnesty International says they can be used as torture devices and, after several Taser-related deaths in Georgia, called for a moratorium on their use.

In the past nine months, five people in Georgia, including three in metro Atlanta, have died after being shocked with Tasers by law enforcement officers. Nationally, 26 people who were shocked with Tasers while in custody died during that period --- as many as had died in the previous 4 1/2 years the guns had been in use.

The gun's manufacturer says that, based on autopsy results, none of the deaths has been directly caused by a Taser. Tom Smith, president and co-founder of Taser International, says the guns have been used safely by law enforcement officers in the field more than 45,000 times since 1999 and used safely more than 100,000 times including demonstration firings. The increase in the number of deaths of people shocked by Tasers simply reflects the increased use of the weapons, the company says.

"Tasers aren't dangerous," said Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle. "They are just used in dangerous situations."

Officers with police departments that use Tasers agree. "I'm not familiar with any medical condition or physical impairment that would be adversely affected by use of a Taser," said Henry County police spokesman Lt. Ken Turner, who doesn't use a Taser himself but whose department has used them for about six months. "This is a perfectly safe weapon."

But those who question Taser use say that not enough independent research has been done on humans to prove that the weapons provide the less than lethal alternative to firearms that boosters say they do. And, although several doctors who have conducted research on Tasers say the 50,000 volts the gun packs shouldn't cause life-threatening injuries, they stop short of saying the weapons aren't strong enough to cause death.

'It hurts quite badly'
Fighting, drug use and psychotic behavior can increase the risk of heart failure, the doctors say. Some Taser critics wonder whether sweat produced by a person who is struggling may alter the effects of the electric shock.

"There's no 'smoking gun' on the Taser alone," said Dr. Alexander Isakov, an emergency medicine specialist at Grady Memorial Hospital and Emory University.

But because of the Georgia deaths, Macon police and the Forsyth County Sheriff's Department have shelved their Tasers, and College Park police decided to hold off on buying any. Taser International executives have scheduled a meeting Wednesday in Atlanta with representatives of 15 Georgia public safety agencies, where they'll discuss studies, done by the University of Missouri and paid for by Taser International, about the devices.

Many police officers who use Tasers call them an effective tool. When the trigger is pulled, the gun shoots out two wires that hook into a person's skin or clothing and deliver a jolt of 50,000 volts. Tasers allow officers to subdue combative suspects or prisoners with minimal risk to the target or the officer, say metro Atlanta law enforcement officers such as Coweta County sheriff's Maj. Jim Yarbrough, a Taser instructor. "It's a lot better than wrestling on concrete," Yarbrough said.

In confrontations, officers are taught to use varying degrees of force, in a scale escalating from oral commands to combat. Deadly force is the last option. Officers employing force not intended to kill rely mostly on pepper spray, batons or their own physical strength. But even when those methods work, police say, both officer and suspect can be injured during contact.

Officers say Tasers give them a measure of control that other forms of restraint don't because they're designed to deliver electrical current from a distance, as much as 21 feet. "It has cut down our physical altercations dramatically," said Sgt. Andy Briggs of the Coweta County Sheriff's Department.

Briggs, who was trained in Taser use by the weapon's manufacturer, wrote the Coweta department's training manual on Taser use based on the company's training program. As part of the training, each officer who will use a Taser must get shocked with one. Police say this shock treatment gives the officers a taste of what they're dishing out and so helps prevent abuse.

It was an experience Briggs said he'd rather not repeat. "My teeth gritted, I couldn't move, I had a grimace on my face, my jaws locked down and my lips pulled back," he said. "It hurts quite badly."

Others who have been on the receiving end of Tasers may consider that an understatement.

Walter Meeks, 40, of Dacula still has scars on his back from being shocked with a Taser at the Gwinnett County Jail during a scuffle with deputies last year. "I never felt that type of pain," said Meeks, who had been arrested for disorderly conduct. "It was unusual punishment."

And David Lee Anderson, 26, said he had an "out-of-body experience" when he was shocked three times with a Taser while in the Gwinnett jail on a disorderly conduct charge.

"I really felt like I left my body," Anderson said. "It was like I passed out. Then, when I woke up, I was being handcuffed."

Autopsy results
People respond differently to electric current, said Sakis Meliopoulos, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech. Meliopoulos, who has testified as an expert witness in electrocution cases around the country, specializes in the safety of electrical systems.

"Some people can withstand the severe pain, some people may faint, or the pain could cause additional problems," Meliopoulos said. "In a person with pre-existing conditions, who knows how the body is going to respond?"

That has been an issue in the case of Frederick Williams, a 31-year-old computer technician from Lawrenceville. Williams died last month after being shocked with a Taser at the Gwinnett jail. Williams had epilepsy. He was acting erratically when police officers went to his house on what police say was a domestic violence call.

Williams' family has questioned whether a Taser should have been used. They believe it contributed to his death. The Gwinnett County medical examiner could not determine the cause of death in an initial autopsy. Williams' death is still being investigated.

"The Taser has never been named as the cause of any deaths," said Taser spokesman Tuttle, "and I fully expect the medical examiner will make the same finding in the case in Gwinnett."

Tuttle points to a study done on pigs, financed by Taser International, that found that the device had no fatal impact on the heart.

Noting that the study was done on animals, Amnesty International and the ACLU argue that more research is needed to determine how the guns affect humans.

The company released a summary of autopsy results from 42 deaths that occurred after a Taser was used. In the summary, heart disease or failure, a drug overdose and asphyxia were most often listed as the cause of death in the cases where a cause could be determined.

In its call for a moratorium on Taser use, Amnesty International said the medical examiners' rulings on the causes of deaths followed a "predictable pattern."

Some question the use of electric shock weapons on people who are often bathed in sweat. "Any time there is moisture on the skin, it acts as a conductor of electricity," said Dr. John Beshai, an Emory University cardiologist who specializes in electrophysiology.

'The best police tool'
But Beshai said it should take a greater jolt than that from a Taser to cause serious health hazards to a healthy person. The wavelength emitted by Tasers seems too short to encroach on the most vulnerable interval of a heartbeat, Beshai said. And the guns use direct current, not the alternating electric current that powers homes and businesses. Direct current is less lethal, Beshai said. "It's not the same as sticking your finger in a light socket."

Many police officers seem convinced that the medical evidence supports Taser use.

"We'd use a Taser if a person was standing in a puddle of water," said Coweta County's Briggs. "It's the single best police tool to come along in my entire career."

Staff writer David Wahlberg contributed to this article.

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