Taser turns 20; deadly debate continues

After two decades of experience and training, critics question how it is used and why the iconic stun gun keeps killing

Cherry Hill Township Police Officer Patrick Higgins takes part in a taser training session at the Gloucester Township, N.J., Police Training Facility, Sept. 25, 2012.
Chris LaChall/Camden Courier-Post/AP

Marcus Brown, of Waterbury, Conn., lived to be 26. He died in the wee hours of May 1, 2011, moments after being shot by a police officer with a Taser electric stun gun.

Brown was bipolar, said an aunt, who identified herself only as Michelle. Her nephew had been seeking medication at an emergency room, she said. According to a police statement, Brown began to shout and curse at the staff, so hospital security cuffed him and called the police, who put Brown in the back seat of their cruiser. He was tased after he ignored officers’ warnings to stop kicking the window.

After being tased, Brown promised to behave, but minutes later he was “unresponsive and in severe physical distress,” the report said. By the time the officers got him into the ER, he had no pulse and could not be revived.

“He was a father. He was going to school. A piece of our heart has been broken,” Michelle said. “Is a cruiser more important than a human being?”

Taser International -- which began developing the gun 20 years ago -- and law enforcement officials regard the controversial device as a lifesaver. Over the past two decades more than 700,000 Tasers have been sold worldwide to consumers, military organizations and 17,000 police forces. The Taser is fired 900 times a day and saves a life every half-hour, according to the company’s website. But stories like Brown’s, some say, happen all too often.

"Tasers are concerning because they are being used as routine compliance tools despite the potential for loss of life,” said Jared Feuer of Amnesty International USA. “The gap between what is justified in a situation and what is used is concerning, not just to us but to the public.”

Police models of the Taser shoot darts to deliver five-second, 50,000-volt electric charges. The gun also includes a means to shock by direct contact, or “drive stun.” That’s enough to stop most people in their tracks.

Sheriff David Doak of Portage County, Ohio, oversees a force of about 40 deputies who have carried Tasers since 2000. He called the device “a very useful tool.”

“You can basically disable somebody if somebody is out of control,” he said. “Oftentimes they stop the escalation of lethal force.”

Taser co-founder and spokesman Steve Tuttle points to stories about how proper use of the weapon has saved lives. In 2002, for example, the Taser saved a 13-year-old Colorado girl who was threatening herself and officers with two butcher knives.

“One officer on scene said he was in the process of just pulling the gun trigger just as the Taser M26 was deployed,” Tuttle said. “That’s as close as you can get.”

He cites other cases: Last month in Australia, a man threatening passersby with a knife and a noose was tased by police, who say they probably saved his life. In July, a man wielding what appeared to be a handgun and holding it to his chin during a traffic stop in Cheboygan, Mich., was tased, hospitalized and later charged with reckless use of a firearm.

But these stories don’t end the debate.

'Less lethal'

Amnesty International counts 500 U.S. deaths following tasing from 2001 to 2012, but acknowledges that just 60 of them were linked to the Taser by medical examiners. Tuttle said some people died weeks after being tased, so the cause is unproved. That gray area confirms the need for more study, Amnesty says.

“We don’t have good information,” Feuer said.

Existing medical studies point in opposite directions. A 2012 study said the Taser can cause cardiac arrest, but Tuttle complained that the study sampled only eight cases. He said many reports exonerate the device, including a five-year study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The company once called the stun gun a “nonlethal” weapon, but changed it to “less lethal” a few years ago. Company literature says officers should limit the number of times a person is tased, avoid specific body parts such as the chest and head, and be watchful for people with health problems.

It doesn’t always work out.

Last year in Thetford, Vt., a 39-year-old artist with epilepsy named Macadam Mason died immediately after a state trooper tased him, according to his girlfriend, Theresa Davidonis, who witnessed the incident. She said she warned the troopers about Mason’s condition but they ignored her.

“[A] trooper shot him in the chest, about five feet away,” she said. “His eyes rolled in the back of his head, and he was dead instantly.”

Mason had suffered a seizure the night before he was tased, and his doctors had asked the police to check up on him.

Davidonis said that if he needed subduing, the four troopers she saw on the scene should have been able to handle him without weapons.

“He had his hands up,” she said.

She filed a civil suit, which is expected to go to trial in February, against the Vermont State Police and the trooper who tased Mason.

In the courtroom

Los Angeles litigator Peter Williamson, whose online shingle reads “Taser Abuse Attorney,” successfully sued the company for $6 million in product liability in 2006, although the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reduced the damages to about $180,000. Williamson is now defending an appeal of a North Carolina verdict (the jury's $10 million award was later reduced by a federal district court judge to $4.37 million) under appeal by Taser. He conceded that the device can be effective if used properly, under well-defined circumstances.

“But it has to be used under very specific circumstances. It cannot be used willy-nilly,” Williamson said. “Boys will be boys. They love to play with their toys. And that’s why this thing is used in a very indiscriminate manner. And that’s where the danger lies. Officers are not trained adequately in the potential risks.”

Another controversy surrounding the weapon is when, or whether, it should be used in situations that aren’t potentially lethal. Civil libertarians and Taser advocates agree that the weapon should not be used for “pain compliance,” but such cases frequently make the news.

Earlier this month, for example, a reportedly unarmed man in Greenfield, Ind., was making no threats but was tased by police after he complained to administrators at his daughter’s high school about a dress-code violation notice she had received, and the argument escalated. In Ontario, an 80-year-old woman suffered a broken hip after police tased her. The woman was wandering around at night with a knife, and the police later said the action was for her protection. Last month, an 18-year-old graffiti artist died after being tased by police in Miami Beach, Fla. His family has filed a lawsuit against the city. A medical examiner’s report is still outstanding.

Tuttle concedes better training is needed.

“Unfortunately, in tight budgetary times, training often gets cut first,” he said, declining to name specific agencies cutting Taser training, but acknowledging that some agencies haven’t been able to afford to get instructors recertified.

The economy hasn’t affected Taser training for the Houston Police Department, spokesman Victor Sentias said. Houston recently bought 2,188 new Tasers, and Sentias said officers must get recertified every year to carry the weapon.

'Getting tased sucks'

Last year Taser made $114.8 million in net sales. For this year’s second quarter, net was $32.2 million, up $4 million from the same period in 2012. The company enjoyed a recent stock rally, seeing a 36 percent spike in August after a district court judge ordered the New York Police Department to test Taser’s body-worn police camera. The same decision found parts of the city’s "stop and frisk" law unconstitutional.

The company is also pursuing some unusual marketing ideas.

Thrillist.com editor Andy Kryza recently underwent the macho passage rite of being tased at the company’s James Bond-ian headquarters before an audience of Taser employees.

“I didn’t actually feel a jolt of pain in my body,” Kryza says on his video. “All I could think of was, take these effin’ hooks out of my back. Also, thank God I didn’t poop.”

To sum up, he said, “Getting tased sucks.”

In another offbeat marketing move, Taser executives said they would like to get booked on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” or “The Colbert Report.”

“We’re serious about what we do, and there’s nothing humorous about [police] responding to resistance [on the part of a suspect],” Tuttle said. “But we’re human here, and while we’re pragmatic, we can also look back on some of our history and laugh a little to keep our sanity.

“Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert reach an important audience that can see that we have a good story to tell, and if it comes with some ribbing, we can take it.”

This story has been updated to reflect adjustments by appeals courts to jury awards in two cases against Taser International.

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