Designed to only shock and immobilize, but are Tasers really safe?
Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) – The Pima County Medical Examiners Office is performing an autopsy on the man who died moments after an officer tased him twice. Tucson police said he was argumentative and confrontational, but the incident still calls into question the use of electrical stun guns: Are they safe?
A Taser shoots an electrical pulse designed to go through clothing to give someone a shock, with the low amperage minimizing long-term harm. But some claim that Tasers can be deadly.
46-year-old Michael Carbone died in police custody, moments after an officer tased him twice responding to a domestic abuse call. However, Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County’s Chief Medical Examiner, told 9OYS it would be tough to blame a stun gun solely and directly for someone’s death.
“At least in the laboratory, nobody has died from my knowledge from being struck with a Taser or having a Taser used on them. The problem in real life is that there’s usually a combination of things going on involving these deaths,” Hess explained.
Those factors include an existing heart condition or drugs, which TPD says Carbone might have had in his system. Both can cause an abnormal heartbeat – or arythmia – which is also why someone would die after a shock from a stun gun.
In November 2011, 43-year-old Henry Fung collapsed from what doctors believe was a heart attack. The officer’s death was mere days after he was tased during police training, but the medical examiner completely ruled that out as a cause of death.
ACLU recommends that police use stun guns sparingly because of what it says is the possible danger involved.
“Tasers are potentially deadly weapons that can cause serious physical injuries and even death. That’s why we believe they should be used only during life-threatening situations,” said Alessandra Soler Meetz, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona.
However, Taser International, the maker of these devices, maintains: “Taser technology has proven to reduce excessive use-of-force claims and these highly publicized cases represent a small percentage of arrests where it has saved numerous lives.”
No so, said Amnesty International, citing 500 deaths in the United States since 2001 of people who were tased. Coroners listed stun gun shocks as a factor in 20 deaths during the same period.
9OYS asked Hes whether there is a way to definitively say that Taser is a cause of death.
“Well, if you had someone hooked up to EKG leads to monitor their heartbeat and they were tased immediately and went into arrhythmia, which they couldn’t recover from, then it would be pretty clear,” Hess said, adding that that he believes tasers are safe.
A recent ACLU study found that few Arizona police departments collect comprehensive data about Taser use. It also found that nearly half the agencies in the statewide study rely solely on Taser International’s training manual, rather than create their own. Tucson Police told 9OYS the department uses a combination of both.