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“Nonlethal” force can kill

Guest commentary for the Denver Post by Mark Silverstein and Mindy Barton

The tragic death of 22-year-old Ryan Wilson on August 4th has justifiably re-focused public attention on the dangers posed when police fire their new high-powered electroshock weapons.

Sold by Taser International (TI), tasers are promoted to the public as devices that can save lives when police would otherwise use firearms. The public is less aware, however, that police departments, with TI's blessing, encourage and authorize officers to use tasers in situations like Ryan's, where no one would claim that firearms are justified.

Nor is the public generally aware of an increasingly common result: more than 200 persons have died shortly after being shocked by law enforcement tasers. Ryan is the fifth such person to die in Colorado since 2002.

The number of taser-associated deaths has steadily increased. There were 4 in 2001; 13 in 2002; 20 in 2003; 57 in 2004; 73 in 2005; and an additional 44 so far in 2006.

Most of the deceased posed no serious physical threat to police. Many were extremely agitated or intoxicated on drugs. Some had underlying heart problems. TI has reported that 80 percent of suspects shocked by tasers were not brandishing any weapon. Before the death toll mounts any higher, law enforcement agencies must declare a moratorium. They must immediately stop using tasers in situations that do not present a substantial threat of death or serious bodily injury.

According to the sparse information released so far, undercover police spotted Ryan near small patch of marijuana plants. He ran. A Lafayette police officer caught up and discharged an X26 taser. Ryan immediately began convulsing and died.

With aggressive marketing and a well-oiled PR machine, TI has persuaded thousands of law enforcement agencies to buy tasers. Beginning in 1999, promotional materials hawked the new M26 Advanced Taser as a nonlethal magic bullet that instantly and safely incapacitated suspects without physical struggle. Police departments rely on company-supplied training materials, which continually assure that tasers are safe, effective, and recommended in numerous situations where suspects pose no serious physical threat.

As the bodies began piling up, however, critics began asking whether TI had overstated its claims of safety. Company officials scoffed. One spokesperson maintained that tasers were no more dangerous than Tylenol, while TI's president denied the existence of any evidence that tasers could be dangerous.

Two years ago, TI spokespersons claimed that no medical examiner had ever implicated a taser. As more autopsy reports began listing tasers as a primary or contributing cause of death, however, (Amnesty International counted 23 in February), TI argued that coroners were not qualified to assess whether tasers played a causal role.

Investigative reports by the New York Times and the Arizona Republic have raised serious questions about TI's safety claims, its marketing practices, and the reliability of the limited and flawed studies that TI cites. After the SEC and the Arizona attorney general launched inquires about allegedly deceptive statements, TI toned down some rhetoric and recently agreed to pay $20 million to settle a stockholders" lawsuit.

TI has always claimed tasers cannot produce enough current to cause fatal heart problems. In 2005, however, a U.S. Army memorandum concluded that tasers could indeed cause ventricular fibrillation. It therefore recommended against shocking soldiers during training exercises.

Earlier this year, a peer-reviewed forensic engineering journal published a study that tested a taser and concluded that it discharged current far more powerful than TI acknowledged – powerful enough to cause fatal heart disrhythmias.

In May, a biomedical engineering professor reported that tasers caused the hearts of healthy pigs to stop beating, contradicting earlier TI-sponsored studies.

TI lavishly praises reports that provide qualified support to its safety claims. The company's critics ably dissect those analyses, while TI relentlessly grinds out a critique of every study that questions tasers' safety.

With at least 211 deaths linked to this supposedly nonlethal weapon, however, the taser proponents must bear the burden of proof in any battle of experts. It is a burden they have not met. There are no reputable independent studies that confirm the manufacturer's assurances of safety, especially in the real-world conditions in which tasers are actually used and in which suspects actually die.

Law enforcement agencies must stop and question whether they have been sold a bill of goods. Agencies that currently use tasers must reassess, not only to prevent the deaths of more Ryan Wilsons, but also to spare the public purse from the expensive lawsuits that will surely follow the ever-widening trail of broken bodies and shattered lives.

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