Pittsburgh police using taser to restrain protesters (Courtesy The Pittsburgh Independent Media Center)

Pittsburgh police using taser to restrain protesters (Courtesy The Pittsburgh Independent Media Center)

12/17/2007

Are Tasers Safe?

by Iris Tse

Two high profile events involving tasers have dominated the recent news cycle. The first one centered around University of Florida student Andrew Meyers, who was tasered by campus police after he asked John Kerry a string of incredibly juvenile questions at a public forum. It gave rise to an infectious catchphrase (“Don’t tase me, bro!”), copycat videos on YouTube, Facebook groups and the inevitable cafépress T-shirts.

The second taser-related episode involves Robert Dziekanski, a 40-year-old immigrant from Pieszyce, Poland, who died at Vancouver International Airport after being  tased by the police. While Meyer’s story has been treated with humor, and occasional mockery, Dziekanski’s far more tragic ending has prompted many to question the safety of tasers.

There is no simple answer to this. Tasers used in law enforcement are hand-held weapons that can discharge a jolt of electricity up to 50,000 volts. The shot is only supposed to cause short-term muscle contractions and temporary incapacitation, allowing law-enforcers to control belligerent individuals.

The muscle contractions and decreases in respiration may lower blood pH one hour following exposure. Beyond that, the general consensus among firsthand observations and literature reviews is that the shocks do not cause long-term lasting damage to the individual who was tasered nor should it short-circuit pacemakers or kill.

“A lot of things happen when somebody is tasered. If you consider most scenarios, they are usually agitated and held down by many law enforcement agents. In most cases, their breathing are restricted and that could be a contributing cause in taser-related death,” said Dr Jared Strote, from the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center. For the sake of scientific discovery and better understanding, Strote has tasered himself in the past.

“During those five seconds, I can feel my muscles tense up. There’s absolutely no muscle control at all. But my mind is clear and I’m lucid the entire time,” he said. “I regained control once the taser was turned off. But everything was sore.”

However, Strote thinks there still isn’t enough experimental evidence to properly resolve the taser debate. The common experimental flaw in most taser research, including his self-experimentation, is that many of the test subjects were voluntarily tasered. Even when experimenters took care to include a broad spectrum of subjects, they were comparatively healthy, with benign medical history. Neither were they heavily restrained nor violently struggling when the shocks were delivered. Therefore, in Strote’s opinion, experiments need to be better designed to represent real-life scenarios and the confounding variables.

Others believe the danger of tasers lies not in the electrical voltage from a single discharge, but rather the number of times people are tasered.

“The biggest problem with tasers is the fact that the manufacturer refuses to provide users with firm guidelines as to the appropriate use of their product,” said Charly Miller, an author and a paramedic working in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“They failed to mandate a maximum number of consecutive uses on a person. They discourage users from employing ‘prolonged and/or continuous’ exposures or ‘extensive multiple discharges.’ But, they refuse to set a specific limit,” said Miller.

An amateur video shot by a passerby was released after Dziekanski’s death. It showed that he was tasered twice while surrounded by four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers. His body language was confrontational when the officers first approached him. He was screaming and writhing on the airport floor upon being tased and died minutes after a second taser shot.

In light of this, the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper with national reach, conducted an informal poll on its homepage. 80% of voters believe that Canadian police officers turn to their tasers too quickly.

The numbers reflect Canadians’ anxiety towards the weapon. Recently, a man in British Columbia and a man in Nova Scotia also died abruptly after being tasered while in police custody. It’s still unclear what role, if any, tasers might have played in their death.

In Canada, tasers are a prohibited weapon that can only be sold to law enforcement agencies. Tasers are not considered firearms in the United States, though some states, such as New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Michigan and Hawaii, restrict their use by people who are not police officers.

One such taser, the C2 model, is a smaller and lighter version of the law enforcement-grade M26 model. It comes in colours such as “metallic pink” and “electric blue," and is clearly marketed to women. It can be ordered through the internet (for as low as $279.95) and will be activated immediately once the buyer clears background check.

While further experiments are still needed to definitively answer whether tasers are safe, perhaps the better follow-up question is: how safe should we feel about untrained women carrying metallic pink stun guns in their purses, right next to the cherry lip gloss?