Death by Taser

taser.jpgTasers became an integral police tool largely on the strength of the argument that authorities ought to be able to restrain someone without having to shoot them to do it. The news today that five state troopers were involved somehow in using tasers on a driver who was combative in New Brighton, though rare in these parts, is an incident that may well be added to a growing list of deaths by Taser. The Fridley man was pronounced dead at the hospital. It hasn’t been determined if the tasering was the reason.

Other incidents: In North Carolina a man high on crack died after being shot with a Taser when he became combative last Wednesday. On the same day, a Coral Gables, Florida man died. A few days earlier, a man was killed by Taser by the Nevada Highway Patrol. And a few days before that, a death was reported in Alabama.

Police use of Tasers came under more scrutiny with the release last fall of the last minutes of a passenger in an airport in Vancouver, tasered to death by the RCMP.

At the same time, a quick search reveals dozens of instances in which officers using Tasers successfully subdued criminal suspects without shooting them.

So what do we have here? A weapon being misused? Or misunderstood?

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center (FSRC) at Minnesota State University-Mankato, told that even a temporary ban on Tasers “would literally create a catastrophe for peace officers. Lawsuits would increase, officer injuries would increase, subject injuries would increase-all guaranteed. We need additional research, but we don’t need to stop using a unique tool that experience has proven is effective and overwhelmingly safe while more investigation is underway.”

Two years ago the Dade County (Florida) Commissioners commissioned a study on the stun gun. The results, released by the Police Executive Forum, an organization of police chiefs, suggested better training.

For example, the group suggested a person be shot — err, shocked — once, then evaluated, rather than repeatedly shocked.

An article on the report, coincidentally, appeared in today’s Miami Herald, following the death last week of a man.

In 2006, a man died in Wisconsin after being shot, prompting the ACLU to call for more training. The organization cited the work of University of Wisconsin biomedical engineering professor John Webster, who demonstrated that Tasers can cause cardiac ventricular fibrillation – a precursor of cardiac arrest – in pigs. “Particularly in susceptible populations, such as the young, the elderly or those with obvious medical conditions, Tasers must be presumed capable of causing cardiac arrest in humans as well,” the group said.

The debate has been underway across the country for some time. Because of Tuesday night’s incident, it is has now arrived in Minnesota.

(h/t Tom Klun)