You've Probably Been Misled about the Safety of Tasers...

March 1st 2015

Alex Mierjeski

With heightened public concern over the militarization of local and state police forces equipped with heavy weaponry, armored vehicles, and military-grade dispersal devices, the quest for effective, threatening, yet non-lethal devices is more focused than ever before. In fact, the market is expected to double within five years. But as businesses expand and inventions proliferate, just how safe are those on the wrong end of a barrel, a Taser, or a gas canister?

Earlier this month, police in the nation’s cradle of police-related tension, Ferguson, Mo., began testing the latest in non-lethal technology with a device referred to ominously as “The Alternative.” The bright orange ping-pong ball-sized attachment, which has been said to resemble a clown’s prosthetic nose, fits on a pistol’s muzzle and works by embedding the discharged bullet in metal-alloy, which allegedly absorbs energy while diminishing velocity.

According to California manufacturer Alternative Ballistics, the Alternative’s technology is the “critical ‘missing link’ between lethal force and less-lethal force.” In essence, the ball into which the bullet is fired acts as a non-lethal alternative, slowing the suspect down by bruising or fracturing bones. The device costs $45, and is a one-time use, meaning that getting hit multiple times could be deadly. Although the Ferguson Police Department has yet to allocate funds to the device, they have reportedly tested it out on firing ranges.

“It gives you just one more opportunity to neutralize the subject without killing him,” Ferguson’s mayor James Knowles III told the local NBC affiliate. “But we also can’t guarantee that they wouldn’t be killed.”

Are these weapons really non-lethal?

For his part, Knowles’ comments are likely addressing the one-time use clause of the Alternative, but the sentiment hits on a fragile artery that runs through the conversation surrounding non-lethal weapons: just how non-lethal are they?

A good example of this question comes with one of the most common––and contentious––iterations of a so-called non-lethal device: the Taser. These and other “stun guns” send powerful electrical currents through projectile rods that attach to the target and aim to lock down muscle function with a jolt of electricity, incapacitating a subject. But as a host of research and reports suggest, in the wrong hands, Tasers can prove lethal. (Manufacturer Taser International now describes their products as “less lethal,” as opposed to “non-lethal,” for the record.)

A shock from a Taser can be a fatal exacerbating factor depending on the overall health of the person or what substances might be in the body at the time. Those who suffer from pre-existing heart conditions, for example, are especially at risk.

Yet multiple studies have pointed to the inherent danger of Tasers. Researchers in 2012 found that electrical shocks from Taser devices can cause irregular heart rhythms and set off cardiac arrest.

“This is no longer arguable,” a cardiologist and director of the electrophysiology lab at UC San Francisco told The New York Times. “This is a scientific fact. The national debate should now center on whether the risk of sudden death with Tasers is low enough to warrant widespread use by law enforcement.”

Another study found that people who had been electrocuted via Tasers suffered “statistically significant reductions in several measures of cognitive functioning” after being tasered. Taser International funded its own similar study, finding that any “neurocognitive” impact lasted for about an hour. But in the immediate aftermath of electrocution, when a suspect is likely interacting with arresting officers, diminished cognitive ability could have potentially dangerous influence over the comprehension of criminal process items such as Miranda rights or unintentional self-incrimination.

While admittedly reducing the specific risk of shooting deaths and helping officers detain legitimately out-of-control suspects, Tasers undoubtedly pose a significant risk that even the departments using them may not fully grasp. According to Taser International statistics, Tasers are used approximately 904 times every day by more than 17,000 American law enforcement agencies. But in recent years, as their use increases, so too do reports of abuse and misconduct––Tasers were even the focus of the 2007 U.N. Torture Panel.

A few months ago, the Miami New Times published a yearlong investigation into Taser abuse committed by local police departments with some troubling findings. In less than eight years, three major departments tasered more than 3,000 people, including 11 who died after being stunned. “Local cops have tasered kids as young as six, as well as the mentally ill. In at least one instance, a Miami Police officer secretly tasered a homeless man and never reported it,” the article reports. The Florida cases are shocking, but it’s not difficult to snoop out similar accusations against law enforcement agencies across the country. Nor is it hard to find efforts to rein in those abuses.

All of this would logically point to questioned reliance on such devices, and indeed, Taser’s stock dropped by 15 percent earlier this week. But if increased public awareness of Taser device’s less-seen dangers drove the dip, the company seems to have hedged its financial standing with what could be a check on its own product: body-cams. Since the middle of last year, Taser’s worth has soared by 125 percent, in part thanks to the prospects of its AXON camera equipment and evidence.com, a crime management system. “We continue to see positive breakthroughs in the adoption of law enforcement cloud technology as evidenced by this quarter’s evidence.com and Axon bookings of $24.6 million, nearly quadrupling last year’s fourth quarter results,” CEO Rick Smith told USA Today.

The company is predicting big returns on its involvement in the forthcoming proliferation of accountability devices like body-cams. But those efforts have yet to take hold, and as any Google News search on “Taser” will reveal, drastic action is needed now.