Unregulated Use of Taser Stun Guns Threatens Lives, ACLU of Northern California Study Finds

October 6, 2005 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – Few if any controls are imposed on police using Taser stun guns to subdue suspects, which could explain the rise in Taser-related deaths throughout the region, according to a new study released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

“The lack of regulation of Tasers is very disturbing in light of the increasing number of deaths associated with their use,” said Mark Schlosberg, the ACLU of Northern California’s Police Practices Policy Director. “We fear that in the absence of strong regulations on how police use the weapon, we are likely to see more unnecessary deaths.”

In an exhaustive survey of Taser policies and training materials in more than 50 police departments across central and northern California, the ACLU found that while stun gun-related deaths have risen dramatically, the weapon remains largely unregulated. Tasers work by firing twin metal barbs that emit a 50,000-volt charge into an individual, causing him to collapse from loss of muscular control.

Since 1999, at least 148 people in the United States and Canada have died after encounters with police who shocked them with Tasers. More than half of those deaths occurred in the past year, of which 15 took place in northern and central California.

Despite these alarming figures, the Scottsdale, Arizona based manufacturer, Taser International, continues to encourage liberal use of the weapon while grossly downplaying safety concerns. These misleading promotional tactics are reflected in the training materials, which are almost exclusively relied upon by police departments, the ACLU said. Indeed, the ACLU study found that only four of the departments surveyed created their own training materials.

Even more disturbing is the finding that only four departments restrict the number of times an officer may fire a Taser at a suspect. Several of the California victims were stunned with Tasers repeatedly before they died, including Andrew Washington of Vallejo, who was Tased 17 times in three minutes.

“Certainly, the failure of many in law enforcement to ask tough questions about Tasers is partly to blame,” Schlosberg said. “But Taser International is also responsible because its questionable marketing practices and exaggerated safety claims provide the basis for local police policy.”

The rising death toll and the company’s questionable marketing practices and safety claims have attracted serious government scrutiny, Schlosberg noted. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona Attorney General have each opened investigations into the company.

The ACLU report, “Stun Gun Fallacy: How the Lack of Taser Regulation Endangers Lives,” recommends several policy reforms, including legislation that would require Tasers to be used solely as an alternative to deadly force, or, at the very least, regulations aimed at minimizing the risk of death.

The report is available online here.

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