Portland Death Tip of the Iceberg on Taser Danger
Recent Studies Continue to Question Weaponšs Safety

The Portland death of Tim Grant following police use of a Taser is merely one of over 150 such incidents in the US and Canada since 2001, including the January death of a student athlete in Ashland, Oregon. Recent studies by the ACLU of Northern California and Amnesty International call the "less lethal" weapon's safety into question, while another study shows the 50,000 volt stun gun puts out more power than its manufacturer claims.

[SOU student death by Taser] The Ashland case involved an All-American track star at Southern Oregon University, 24-year-old Nick Hanson, who allegedly took a massive dose of sleeping capsules before Ashland police burst into his apartment. The Ashland Daily Tidings (January 26) reports that Hanson collapsed on the kitchen floor but then got up and became combative with the police, who tasered him. He was knocked down, handcuffed, and died on the way to the hospital. The combination of controlled substances, combativeness, and Taser use fits the pattern of most Taser-related deaths, including Grant's. The Deputy State Medical Examiner in Hanson's case, Dr. James Olson, like his boss Karen Gunson in Portland, seemed to ignore the evidence mounting in these 150 other incidents. Olson "found that the Taser had nothing to do with Hanson's death" (Oregonian, January 27).

On March 27, Amnesty International (AI) released an updated version of its November, 2004 report, showing that Taser-related deaths had increased from 3 during 2001 to 61 in the year 2005 (of course, the number of Tasers being used has gone up as well). The report documents a total of 156 deaths, up from the cumulative total of just 70 in 2004. Their report shows that of the 61 who died in 2005, 40 were zapped 3 or more times. Patrick Lee of Nashville, for example, was hit 19 times after exhibiting erratic behavior and stripping naked (9/22/05). The report cites repeated use of the Taser as a violation of the UN Basic Principles on Use of Force and Firearms. "In some cases, Amnesty International believes the use of Tasers has amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and torture." They particularly point to the use of Tasers after people have been taken into custody as an excessive use of force.

AI found that in 23 of the cases they studied, coroners listed the Taser as a cause or contributory factor in the death. In 7 cases, it was listed as the primary cause, with the deaths listed as homicides. Taser International argues that their weapon is not to blame, because they claim that Taser-caused deaths would all be instantaneous, as with electrocution. Since 44 of the 85 new cases happened on the scene of the Tasering, perhaps the manufacturer should rethink this defense.

[March 24 Trib article shows medical examiners' conflict of interest] And defense is the right word. In 2002, after Portland Copwatch published its first article about Tasers and cited AI, Steve Tuttle, Taser's Director of Government & Law Enforcement Affairs, wrote to us, stating "I saw the same mush being quoted from Amnesty (Irrational) International regarding TASERs. I am shocked (pardon the pun) that someone would continue to quote the rehashed, tired and untrue lies that the TASER caused two deaths."

When a new study was released by the Journal of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers in January showing that Tasers put out as much as 39 times more electrical current than Taser claims, their response was similar. They referred to the publication as an "obscure bulletin" and smeared the study's author, electrical engineer James Ruggieri, as "a high school dropout." Ruggieri apparently left high school early to attend college, then earned a master's degree in computer science and has investigated electrical accidents for the federal government (Arizona Republic, February 13).

The study focuses on the Taser M18, not the M-26 or X-26 that are used by Portland officers. Since the M18 actually uses less power, the results may be more extreme for the models Portland uses. Ruggieri found that the M18s had a 50 percent chance of causing ventricular fibrillation and generated 704 watts of power, not 18, even accounting for the electrical resistance created by the human body.

The ACLU of Northern California also released a study on Tasers, focusing on 15 cases in their region before September, 2005. In one case, 21-year-old Andrew Washington was tased 17 times in three minutes after fleeing the scene of hitting a parked car (9/16/04). The ACLU reports that the Customs Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security decided against arming themselves with the stun guns because of safety concerns. Chief Ray Samuels of Newmark, CA explained his decision not to use them: Even if used as recommended, there is "still the possibility of an unintended reaction. I can't imagine a worse circumstance than to have a death attributed to a Taser in a situation that didn't justify lethal force." The ACLU report notes that Louis Graham, DeKalb, Georgia's Police Chief, a "big supporter of Tasers," shelved them in August 2005 after Taser admitted they may result in deaths (PPR #36).

Both the AI and ACLU reports use different language to urge police to consider adopting the same model as in Britain, where police can only use Tasers as an alternative to deadly force, stricter policies are enacted, and training is required beyond that provided by Taser International.

Here in Portland, a study released by the Oregon Advocacy Center in December, 2005 challenged the Portland Police Bureau's use of a Taser on an 11-year-old at Buckman School in 2004 (see PPR #34). Noting that the police did not take the time to consult about the youth's history, which included fear of the police, the Center wrote "Unarmed ward staff at mental institutions routinely restrain much larger and far more dangerous adults by using mattresses or blankets to smother and contain the blows and threats of patients who have obtained weapons." Dorothy Elmore, then-Schools Police Captain, had ordered Officer Jonathan Hunt to use the Taser if the student "appeared ready to throw something at the officers." As a result, Hunt fired the weapon's electrical probes without warning when the child approached him with his hand raised (Portland Tribune, December 30).

Read the Amnesty International Taser report at http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/usa/document.do?id=ENGAMR510302006 .

 

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