Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Truth About Tasers: Tools Of The Trade Or Tools Of Terror?

The revelation that Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten, who is also certified as a Taser instructor, dry-fired a Taser at his stepson at the lowest possible setting (at the kid's request, recorded on Document #5, top of page 2) has generated concern among the Alaska public. Some have even tried to portray Wooten as a "monster" for having done this.

This reaction could well reflect misinformation about the Taser. In Utah, Jared Massey became a cause celebre when he was Tasered by Utah Trooper John Gardner during a traffic stop in 2008, even though Massey was not actively resisting or fighting the trooper. While Gardner was officially exonerated of any misconduct, the state of Utah paid a $40,000 lawsuit settlement to Massey. But this incident generated passionate discussion on both sides, initially in favor or Massey, but then shifting more in favor of Gardner after Massey filed his lawsuit (one individual commenting to the Deseret News story cited in this post pointed out that the correct verb is "to be Tasered" rather than "to be Tased", although it probably hurts just as much either way).

Those not familiar with the Jared Massey case, or who want a refresher course, can read a series of posts on Voice Of Deseret which documents it from start to finish.

On July 20th, 2008, the Deseret News published a lengthy article about Tasers, which serves to clear up many of the misconceptions. Click HERE to read the entire five-page article; I present a summary in this post. You can also read the Wikipedia entry on Tasers HERE.

"Taser" is actually an acronym for the weapon used by its inventor's favorite book hero, the Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle. Jack Cover, who worked for NASA, first developed the weapon. Because it uses compressed air as the propellant, it isn't officially categorized as a gun. Instead of shooting bullets, a Taser deploys barb-filled cartridges. When fired, the barbs fly out of the cartridge and stick in clothing or skin. At the same time, it also shoots out tiny confetti paper circles with minuscule serial numbers on them; the significance of this will be explained later.

The X26, the most common Taser, has a potential maximum of 50,000 volts when it's not hitting a human. When it makes contact it's around 1,500 to 3,000 volts. To put this in perspective, Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, says that it uses 2.1 miliamps. In contrast, a wall socket has 110 volts but 16 amps behind it, which is why the shock from sticking a fork into an outlet would be much more severe than a Taser jolt. Another comparison: While a cardiac defibrillator uses 360 joules per pulse, a Taser uses .07 joules per pulse.

In any event, everyone on the receiving end agrees it is a painful experience. There's a crackling, popping sound as the Taser completes a five-second round of "shocking," locking up all the individual's muscles and usually dropping him like a sack of potatoes. When she tried it, Utah County Sheriff's Deputy Michelle Frampton clenched her teeth, squeezed her eyes shut, kicked her feet and let out a primal scream. After five seconds, her body went limp. It was over. "I've never felt pain like that before," said Michelle Frampton, after an instructor pulled two Taser barbs out of her back. "I was trying to curl up into a ball. It hurt a lot." But as soon as the shock is over, the pain is gone; no lingering side effects. "Most pain is just where you hurt, not your entire body," said Utah County Deputy Sheriff Remington Barron. "(This one) started, stopped and then it was over. I don't feel hurt at all."

The increasing popularity of the Taser is attributable to the fact that it provides an intermediate non-lethal use of force which works better than pepper spray. Instead of a cop having to struggle with a suspect, risking injury to himself and even greater injury to the suspect, the cop can temporarily incapacitate the suspect. It strikes a better balance between the need for the cop to protect self versus the cop's sworn obligation to protect society at personal hazard.

Like other weapons, the Taser has its limitations. The weapon is most effective within 7 to 15 feet. Less than 7 feet and the barbs don't spread as far and the muscle-freezing nature of the tool is limited. Thick clothing will also prevent a good connection. But even after the barbs have been deployed, an officer can still "drive stun" a suspect — pushing the weapon into a muscle for the same type of shock. Nevertheless, officers aren't just casually turned loose with Tasers; they must undergo training, which can vary according to jurisdiction. Training frequently requires personal experience on the receiving end of the Taser so that officers understand its effects and won't use it indicriminately.

Taser use is generally carefully documented and tracked. The tiny confetti paper cirles with serial numbers expelled during each Taser usage are gathered at each scene, along with the cartridge, and booked into evidence to document whose Taser was used and how many Tasers were used. The officer also takes pictures of the puncture sites and calls for medical attention. Each deployment is then formally documented in the police report, as well as all verbal pre-warnings before Taser use.

But are there any adverse long term health effects? Taser usage is so recent that there still is no clear-cut consensus on this question. As Jared Strote, an assistant professor at the University of Washington in the division of Emergency Medicine, said, "No one has proven that Tasers do in fact kill people and no one has proven that Tasers are completely safe and don't kill people. Honestly, it's still an unknown." Amnesty International hysterically claims that, since June 2001, more than 290 individuals in the United States have died after being struck by police Taser, but detractors claim the statement is out of context.

"It's misleading and inflammatory," Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said. "The public thinks, 'Wow, another death caused by Taser.' But wait six weeks, six months ... find out what the medical examiner says and get cleared. We'd say that it was a very tragic event, but it had nothing to do with the Taser." He furthered stated that Amnesty quotes such high numbers of Taser-related deaths because they don't account for deaths that are medically cleared to have been caused by something other than a Taser — possibly excited delirium, drug overdoses or underlying health problems. This is quite similar to the hysteria about second-hand smoke; anti-smoking activists claim that hundreds die each year from second-hand smoke, but no one has ever walked into a smoke-filled room, taken one whiff, and instantly keeled over dead.

Excited delirium is most often brought on by drug use, illness, head trauma or psychosis, marked by erratic actions, racing pulse, profuse sweating, disrobing, superhuman strength and imperviousness to pain, plus core body temperatures as high as 106 degrees. And once the body reaches a certain temperature, the organs start irreversibly shutting down. At that point, an individual will most likely die, regardless of Taser use. However, if one is used, questions arise. But an individual's medical history and drug habits also affect responses to a Taser.

However, the company has been targeted by litigation from some police departments around the country, as detailed HERE, so the technology is a long way from being foolproof.

In September 2007, the Anchorage Daily News published a story typifying how Alaska law enforcement officers use Tasers in Alaska. The account mirrors the information presented in this post so far. An undated Juneau Empire story, possibly from 2005, offers more information about Alaska Taser usage. All indications are that Alaska law enforcement officers receive initial and recertification training on the device on a regular basis.

In the hands of properly trained and indoctrinated individuals, the Taser appears to be a valid tool for enforcement, so long as protective guidelines are scrupulously followed. They are actually tools of the trade, but if lawbreakers look upon them as tools of terror, that's O.K. by me.

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