Weighing the risks of Tasers

Part 2 of 2: How lethal is ‘non-lethal’?

This week, Kingston police received the 30 new Tasers they requested after Homecoming.
This week, Kingston police received the 30 new Tasers they requested after Homecoming.

Life-saving device or dangerous weapon?

That’s the question surrounding Tasers, the “stun gun” introduced to Canada just over five years ago.

It was an investigation into forms of “non-lethal” force following a spate of civilian shootings by police in 1998 that launched one of the most controversial law enforcement issues in North America.

Late that year, Sgt. Darren Laur of the Victoria, B.C. police department was given the task of looking into alternative forms of police force. The Taser was one of the products he was testing.

“We decided that there was enough medical support at that time … to go ahead and field test it,” Laur told the Journal. “The Victoria police department has always been pretty progressive.”

According to the website of their Arizona-based developer and manufacturer, Taser International, Tasers are classified as non-lethal weapons by the United States Department of Defense.

Laur obtained permission from the B.C. Attorney General to give Tasers to Victoria police officers and track them for six months. In 1999, the Victoria police department became the first in Canada to use the devices, making Laur one of the leading figures behind the introduction of Tasers into Canada.

Seven years later, Tasers have been approved and are used by police departments across Canada.

Among them is the Kingston Police Force, which purchased 30 new Tasers after the Aberdeen street party. The Tasers arrived at police headquarters this week.

Laur said he thinks Tasers are a safer option than firearms, which justifies their use.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Is it a safe option?’ and I say, ‘It’s a safer option,’ ” he said.

But not everyone sides with Laur.

Phil Rankin, a Vancouver lawyer, says he believes that having Tasers as an option means police may use it instead of tactics such as verbal persuasion.

“Instead of using talk, they use force,” he said. “[Tasers are] technical solutions to psychological or social issues, really.”

Rankin has handled several cases of alleged wrongful death in police custody. One of his clients is Dianna Andreichikov, a B.C. woman whose son died after being Tasered twice in the chest while under the influence of illicit drugs. A coroner’s inquest found he died of cardiac arrest. Andreichikov’s story was featured in the Jan. 17 issue of the Journal.

According to a U.S. Army memorandum obtained by the Journal, the U.S. Army also believes Tasers may pose unwarranted risks, even to people who are otherwise healthy.

The recently-released memo conducted by the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine supports the suggestion that Tasers may interfere with the electric impulses that cause the heart to beat, throwing the chambers of the heart out of sync and into a state known as ventricular fibrillation.

The analysis was conducted in February 2005 to evaluate the safety of Tasers for use on U.S. Army military and civilian personnel during training. The memo states that in addition to other potential injuries, “seizures and ventricular fibrillation can be induced by the electric current” produced by Tasers.

While the memo states that the use of the Tasers is “feasible and effective,” it goes on to add that “the practice of using these weapons on U.S. Army military and civilian forces in training is not recommended given the potential risks.”

Kingston Police Chief Closs told the Journal there are risks associated with Tasers.

“We’re fully aware of the risk involved because unfortunately, one of my officers did use a Taser and unfortunately, we did lose a member of our community,” he said.

According to the Kingston Whig-Standard, Samuel Truscott died after being Tasered in August 2004. A coroner’s inquest ruled that Truscott died of a heart attack caused by a cocaine overdose.

“That is why were very careful to say we don’t want to Taser any citizen, any student. But some of my officers have been trained and are authorized to carry them as they have for the past two years.”

Cameron Ward, another Vancouver lawyer, is currently working on the case of Robert Bagnell, who died after being Tasered in June 2004. He argues that Tasers didn’t undergo sufficient independent testing before being approved for use on the public.

“These weapons were not adequately tested prior to their introduction into Canada,” he said. “As far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s been no independent Canadian safety testing done before the police in this country were allowed to use them.” Ottawa Police Sgt. Mark Barkley said Taser use is a matter of provincial jurisdiction.

After Tasers were approved for use in Victoria, Barkley said, the Ottawa and Toronto police forces engaged in pilot projects, giving Tasers to tactical units in both cities and monitoring their use for approximately a year. Following that study, the two forces submitted proposals with results of the study to the provincial government, which subsequently approved Tasers for use.

Barkley said each police department has the prerogative to make its own standard operating procedure regarding the conditions under which Tasers are used.

Closs said that until the Ontario provincial government decides that Tasers are unsafe for use, his officers will continue to use them according to the standard operation procedure of the Kingston Police Force.

Sgt. Darren Keuhl said Kingston police are permitted to use Tasers to prevent a prisoner from being taken from police custody, to disarm an apparently dangerous person armed with an offensive weapon, to control potentially violent situations when other use of force options are not practical and to prevent themselves from being overpowered when violently attacked.

Some critics charge that Laur introduced Tasers to Victoria out of a desire for personal gain, but Laur denies any conflict of interest.

Laur said he did at one time have stocks in Taser International, but only because he designed a holster for Taser International which then wanted to pay him for his work but was unable to pay him in cash due the company’s financial constraints at the time.

He said he did not have any ulterior motives in introducing the devices to the Victoria police department and he has been open about these stocks and got rid of them before his participation in subsequent reviews of Taser use.

“I’ve never been an employee of Taser International and I’ve never been on their Board of Directors and I’ve never, ever sold their product,” he said.

Ward said he is concerned that Tasers are dangerous and are causing deaths in Canada and the United States. Since 1999, he said, at least 162 people have died in North America after being Tasered by police. The Arizona Republic newspaper reported that between 1999 and 2004 there were 11 cases in which medical examiners could not rule out the Taser as a cause of death.

“Many of the common factors in those deaths are multiple Taser strikes, persons who are under the influence of narcotics, and in some cases, persons who have a pre-existing medical or heart defect,” he said. “The police support the use of these weapons and do that in the face of a mounting body of evidence suggesting there should be concerns about whether they’re, in fact, killing people.”

James Ruggieri, an electrical engineer in Arizona, also believes Tasers can pose a threat. He is currently facing a defamation lawsuit from Taser International following a presentation he made on the Taser product in early 2005.

In May 2004, Ruggieri volunteered to look into the safety of Tasers as part of a police inquiry in the U.S.

He said he began his research by reviewing literature on the subject. Ruggieri subsequently tested Tasers using a “resistance load” comparable to that of a human body and mapped the results.

“I could not confirm the data provided by the manufacturer [concerning the force released by the devices],” he said. “I found the energy [output] to be substantially more than the manufacturer’s claim.”

Ruggieri said the increased energy output raises the risk factor for anyone being Tasered, but that individuals who are vulnerable in some way would be more susceptible to the jolt of electricity. This vulnerability could include cocaine intoxication, cardiac or respiratory problems, fatigue, dehydration or malnourishment, among other things.

Ruggieri said being hit by a Taser causes periodic contractions in affected muscles. This includes muscles hit directly by the current, but can also extend to others. An immediate consequence of the muscle contractions, he said, is an increased level of carbon dioxide in the blood, which raises its acidity in an extreme form of raised blood acidity caused by exercise.

Ruggieri said another, more contested possibility in this case, is that among the muscles affected by the 50,000 volt electric current will be those causing the heart to pump, resulting in ventricular fibrillation.

At this point, Ruggieri said, the heart is quivering and its ability to pump blood is severely impaired, if not prevented entirely. A lack of circulation prevents the oxygenation of the blood and causes a buildup of carbon dioxide and blood acidity.

A media spokesperson for Taser International was out of town and unavailable for comment.

On Taser International’s website, the product warnings section cautions that Tasers can cause muscle contractions that may result in inhibited breathing. As well, it cautions that “if a person’s system is already compromised by over-exertion, drug intoxication, stress, pre-existing medical or psychological condition(s), etc., any physical exertion, including the use of a TASER device, may have an additive effect in contributing to cumulative exhaustion, stress, cardiovascular conditions, and associated medical risk(s).”

Steve Wright, another Vancouver lawyer who also has some experience with Taser cases, said he thinks a similar scenario might have played out in the death of Roman Andreichikov. Wright said he believes that combination of cocaine psychosis, the two Taser blows and the ensuing struggle all contributed to Andreichikov’s cardiac arrest.

“It’s a multifactorial situation,” he said.

Andreichikov’s cocaine-induced increase in heart rate and blood acidity was likely exacerbated by the jolt of electricity, which also altered the electrolytes in his blood, Wright said. He said struggling beneath the weight of several policemen both increased the man’s blood acidity and deprived him of oxygen, ultimately leading to his death.

“His last, best chance was not to be Tasered,” Wright said.

The connection between Tasers and deaths in police custody is not regarded as self-evident, however. Studies done by the Canadian Police Research Centre (CPRC) claim that many unexplained deaths in police custody are due to a medical phenomenon called “excited delirium.”

A paper written by Laur for the CPRC in 2004 contends that cases of “sudden and unexplained deaths proximal to restraint” in police custody are caused by excited delirium, brought on by a combination of factors including cocaine intoxication, raised blood acidity similar to that alleged to be caused by Tasers, antipsychotic drugs, genetic susceptibility to arrhythmia, and “face down prone restraint proximal to arrest.” The paper cites records of deaths in geriatric and psychiatric wards attributed to this phenomenon dating back to the mid-19th century.

“These kinds of deaths have been taking place in police custody for years,” Laur said. “What the medical community has told us is it’s not necessarily the force option being used [that is causing the deaths]. It’s this underlying medical condition called excited delirium.”

Ward said he believes this is an insufficient explanation.

“[Excited delirium is] not a generally recognized medical phenomenon,” he said. “I think it overlooks the consequences introducing an electrical shock can have on a person’s system.”

Wright said the problem is less with the Tasers themselves and more in the way they are used.

“The Taser just makes it so easy [to neutralize someone]. That’s the problem with the Taser,” Wright said. “It was regarded as a panacea, [but] it’s not at all.”

While Laur agreed Tasers are not a “silver bullet,” he said they are being used safely in Canada.

“When we did our cross-Canada investigation, most if not all police departments had policy procedure and guidelines in place for the use of Tasers,” he said. “We’ve always come forward and said that any time an officer uses a Taser inappropriately, they should be held [responsible] for their actions.”

Laur added that while testing Tasers on police is not recommended because of the risk of soft tissue damage, there are situations when Taser use is necessary.

“If I’m dealing with a subject who’s got a heart condition but is a deadly force threat, would you want me to Tase them or would you want me to shoot them?” he asked. “If I have the opportunity to use a Taser when it’s appropriate and reasonable, then why not?”

Rankin said he hopes that continued medical research into deaths following Taser use will force police to employ Tasers with more caution.

“No matter how many people die, it’s still [classified as] a non-lethal weapon,” he said. “If you give these guys toys and tell them they’re non-lethal, they’ll use the bloody things.”

Closs said he can’t promise that Tasers will only be used by police in instances where the only other alternative is a gun. He emphasized, however, that his officers have been trained to use the weapons only in certain circumstances.

“We recognize that police officers are human,” he said. “They don’t want to hurt anybody,” Closs added he feels there has been too much talk of Tasers recently.

“We’re trying to turn down the rhetoric about the use of force and Tasers because we have absolutely no intent to use them,” he said. “We hope that we never have to.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.