LOS ANGELES—The Taser, in current and frequent use by law enforcement agencies throughout the world, is praised as a life saving alternative to a bullet, but the device has also long been associated with the death of individuals despite the fact that over 99 percent of people who are subjected to a Taser jolt are not seriously injured as a direct result.
It's a conundrum. Since Tasers were approved for use by police officers in 1999, untold numbers of people have not been shot, but 277 people have died after receiving the shock during altercations with law enforcement officers, according to an ABC News article published in 2007. In the intervening years, more have died, and now, the first scientific, peer-reviewed study has been published that finds evidence Tasers can cause, and have caused, cardiac arrest and death.
The study, which was published by the American Heart Association, was conducted because the safety of electronic control devices (ECD) has been questioned, and was designed to "analyze in detail cases of loss of consciousness associated with ECD deployment."
According to the study abstract, "Eight cases of TASER X26 ECD-induced loss of consciousness were studied. In each instance, when available, police, medical and emergency response records, ECD dataport interrogation, automated external defibrillator (AED) information, ECG strips, depositions, and autopsy results were analyzed. ... This report offers evidence regarding the mechanism by which an ECD can produce transthoracic stimulation resulting in cardiac electrical capture and ventricular arrhythmias leading to cardiac arrest."
The study concludes definitively, "ECD stimulation can cause cardiac electrical capture and provoke cardiac arrest due to ventricular tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) / ventricular fibrillation (severely abnormal heart rhythm). After prolonged ventricular tachycardia / ventricular fibrillation without resuscitation, asystole (flatlining) develops."
As noted in an article on the study published by the International Business Times, Tasers have thus far been linked to three deaths in 2012, including that of adult performer Marland Anderson, aka Sledge Hammer, who died April 8 after being removed from life support by his mother following an altercation with police officers five days earlier, during which he was reportedly Tasered twice.
An autopsy conducted by the Los Angeles Coroner was inconclusive, and a cause of death has not yet been entered as the coroner awaits the results of toxicology tests. Now, with the release of this study, there is the possibility that there will be renewed attention given to the role of the Taser in Anderson's death, especially in light of the fact that the Department of Justice, which continues to defend the use of Tasers, publicly stated in a May 2011 report that the death of people shot with a Taser was often due to improper use of the device by officers.
"A review of deaths following [Taser] exposure found that many are associated with continuous or repeated shocks," the report stated. "There may be circumstances in which repeated or continuous exposure is required, but law enforcement officers should be aware that the associated risks are unknown. Therefore, caution is urged in using multiple activations."
Despite its alarming conclusions, the study is not likely to impact the current use of Tasers, which previous research has determined are safe for use by the police, but it is also certain to reignite the charge that too many officers resort to the use of the device too quickly, and in circumstances that could be dealt with by other means.