The Taser: life-saver or killer?
AS THE sun set on 24 June, something snapped in Kris J Lieberman, an unemployed landscaper who lived a few miles from the quiet town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania. For 45 minutes, he crawled deliriously around a pasture, moaning and pounding his head against the weedy ground.
Eventually the police arrived, carrying a Taser M26, the electric gun increasingly popular with law enforcement officers nationwide. It fires electrified barbs up to 21 feet, hitting suspects with a disabling charge.
The officers told Lieberman, 32, to calm down. He lunged at them. They fired their Taser twice. He fought briefly, collapsed and died.
Lieberman joined a growing number of people, now at least 50, including six in June alone, who have died since 2001 after being shocked. Taser International, which makes several versions of the gun, says its weapons are not lethal, even for people with heart conditions or pacemakers. The deaths resulted from drug overdoses or other factors, and would have occurred anyway, the company argues.
But Taser has scant evidence for that claim. The company’s primary safety studies on the M26, far more powerful than other stun guns, consist of tests on a single pig in 1996 and on five dogs in 1999. Company-paid researchers, not independent scientists, conducted the studies, which were never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Taser has no full-time medical director and has never created computer models to simulate the effect of its shocks, which are difficult to test in human clinical trials for ethical reasons.
What is more, aside from a continuing defence department study, the results of which have not been released, no federal or state agencies have studied the safety, or effectiveness, of Tasers, which fall between two agencies and are essentially unregulated. No federal agency has studied the deaths to determine what caused them. In at least two cases, local medical examiners have said Tasers were partly responsible. In many cases, autopsies are continuing or reports are unavailable.
The few independent studies to have examined the Taser have found that the weapon’s safety is unproven at best. The most comprehensive report, by the British government in 2002, concluded "the high-power Tasers cannot be classed, in the vernacular, as ‘safe’". Britain has not approved Tasers for general police use.
A 1989 Canadian study found that stun guns induced heart attacks in pigs with pacemakers. A 1999 study by the US department of justice on an electrical weapon much weaker than the Taser found that it might cause cardiac arrest in people with heart conditions. In reviewing other electrical devices, the US food and drug administration found that a charge half as large as that of the M26 can be dangerous to the heart.
While Taser says that the M26 is not dangerous, it now devotes most of its marketing efforts to the X26, a less powerful weapon it introduced last year. Both weapons are selling briskly. About 100,000 officers in the US now have Tasers, 20 times the number in 2000, and most carry the M26. Taser, whose guns are legal for civilian use in most states, hopes to expand its market with a new consumer version of the X26 this month.
For Taser, which owns the weapon’s trademark and is the only company now making the guns, the growth has been a bonanza. Its stock has soared. Its executives and directors, including a former New York police commissioner, Bernard B Kerik, have taken advantage, selling $60 million in shares since November.
Patrick Smith, Taser’s chief executive, insists the guns are safe. "We tell people that this has never caused a death, and in my heart and soul I believe that’s true," Smith says.
Taser did not need to disclose the British results to US police departments, he says.
"The Brits are extremely conservative," he claims. In addition to Taser’s animal trials, thousands of police volunteers have received shocks without harm, Mr Smith adds.
But the hits that police officers receive from the M26 in their Taser training have little in common with the shocks given to suspects. In training, volunteers usually receive a single shock of a half-second or less. In the field, Tasers automatically fire for five seconds. If an officer holds down the trigger, a Taser will discharge longer. And suspects are often hit repeatedly.
Overall, Taser has significantly overstated the weapon’s safety, say biomedical engineers who separately examined the company’s research at the request of the New York Times. None of the engineers has any financial stake in the company or any connection with Taser; the Times did not pay them.
Relatively small electric shocks can kill people whose hearts are weakened by disease or cocaine use, says John Wikswo, a Vanderbilt University biomedical engineer. But no-one knows whether the Taser’s current crosses the threshold for those people, Mr Wikswo argues.
"Their testing scheme has not included the possibility that there is a subset of the population that is exquisitely sensitive," Mr Wikswo says. "That alone means they have not done adequate testing."
Mr Smith says Taser will eventually run more tests: "In a perfect world, I’d love to have studies on all this stuff, but animal studies are controversial, expensive. "You’ve got to do the reasonable amount of testing."
Comparing Taser’s tests to the studies conducted by makers of medical devices like pacemakers is unfair, he says.
Andrew Podgorski, a Canadian electrical engineer who conducted the 1989 study, is certain Tasers are dangerous for people with pacemakers - and more research is needed to determine if other people are vulnerable. "I would urge the US government to conduct those studies," Mr Podgorski says. "Shocking a couple of pigs and dogs doesn’t prove anything."
Many police officers defend the Taser, saying the weapon helps them avoid using deadly force and lowers the risk of injury to officers.
Tasers let police officers subdue suspects without wrestling with or hitting them, argues David Klinger, a former police officer and a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St Louis. And Tasers are surely safer than firearms.
"I think it is appropriate for deployment in the field," Klinger adds. "You trust this guy or gal with a gun, you should be able to trust them with a less lethal device."
But human rights groups say the police may be overusing the Taser, especially given the safety questions. Because the gun leaves only light marks, and because Taser markets it as nonlethal, officers often use it on unruly suspects, not just as an alternative to deadly force, says Dr William F Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA. In recent incidents, police officers have shocked a nine-year-old girl in Arizona and a 66-year-old woman in Kansas City.
A 2002 study found nearly 85 per cent of people shocked with Tasers were unarmed. Less than 5 per cent were carrying guns.
"We think there should be controlled, systematic independent medical studies," Dr Schulz says. "We would like to see these weapons suspended until these questions are answered."
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