Taser International made more than $67 million last year on electrical stun guns used by law enforcement agencies across the United States and Canada. But a mounting death toll, injured victims and questionable science are calling into question the company's claim that the weapons are "non-lethal."
By James Hibberd
Sgt. Samuel Powers loved being a cop. A 15-year veteran of the Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff's Department, Powers likes to say that he never spent a day at work. "I loved this job more than anything else in the world," he said.
Three years ago, Powers' department was issued the M26 Tasers — gun-like stun weapons that fire 50,000 volts of electricity via two wires led by piercing darts.
"I heard they were the best thing to ever happen to law enforcement," Powers said. "I was told it was a new weapon that was nonlethal, that it absolutely could not hurt anybody."
During his mandatory training class, Powers watched as one officer after another experienced the Taser's shock. Full-grown men, tough cops, were taken down in a flash with an embarrassing involuntary holler as an electric charge scrambles their nervous system.
When it was Powers' turn, the weapon's electrodes were attached to his ankle and shoulder. His captain pulled the trigger.
And what happened next changed Powers forever.
"Instantly I was in severe pain," he said. "The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. Just trying to draw breath killed me. The pain radiated around from my back and chest. It was the worst pain I ever felt in my life."A doctor told Powers the muscle contractions caused by the Taser's electrical charge had crushed one of his thoracic vertebrae. His career as a cop was over.
And yet — Powers was one of the lucky ones.
More than 90 people have died in the United States and Canada after being struck with a Taser, which is manufactured, marketed and sold by the Arizona-based Taser International.
Nobody is entirely sure whether the Taser caused their deaths, or if a confluence of unique medical factors was the culprit. For all their dramatic power, there is a surprising lack of scientific research documenting the physiological impact of the Taser charge. Yet for years the weapon has been promoted to law enforcement and civilians as a safe alternative to lethal force.
Amnesty International (AI) has tracked Tasers for years. As the popularity of Tasers skyrocketed among U.S. law enforcement agencies during the past few years, deaths associated with the weapons have likewise increased — along with clear examples of abuse. Amnesty's latest report, released in November, documented police officers using Tasers against an intoxicated man strapped to a hospital gurney; a 50-year-old man who refused to give police his date of birth at a picnic; and a woman six months pregnant, shocked in the abdomen, while handcuffed and seated in the back of a police car.
In 80 percent of cases, the Amnesty report said, suspects were unarmed. In 36 percent of cases, the weapons were used due to "verbal noncompliance." Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU in Colorado, cited Amnesty International's report in a campaign to urge Denver police to increase their threat threshold for using Tasers.
"Tasers are promoted as a less lethal alternative to firearms in cases where police would otherwise use deadly force," Silverstein said. "But what many people are unaware of is Tasers are used in numerous situations where even your most rogue cowboy-type officer wouldn't even dream of pulling a firearm. And even if it doesn't cause death, it's still 50,000 volts of electricity that cause immediate, overwhelming and excruciating pain that is disproportionate to the need for it."
The efforts of AI and other campaigner have not gone unnoticed. In the last year, several media outlets have published in-depth investigative reports documenting Taser abuse and deaths. Taser International shareholders have filed more than one dozen class-action lawsuits against the company, accusing Taser of making misleading claims about the safety of its guns in order to maintain profitability.
And even some law enforcement agencies — Taser's most voracious customers and vigorous defenders — are now having second thoughts about a weapon that has become standard issue equipment for about 100,000 police officers across the country.
Benjamin Franklin discovered the electrical nature of lightning in 1752. But people were shocking each other with electricity as far back as 3000 B.C. The effect of electricity is dramatic because the human body is an electrical system suspended in salt water. Introducing an outside charge — especially a 50,000 volt shock from a device like the Taser — instantly overwhelms your system, and your mind loses control of your body.
In 1974 a Hughes Aerospace physicist named Jack Cover recognized that electricity, properly administered, could act as an effective weapon. He invented an electroshock device and named it after a series of Tom Swift adventure books he read as a kid. Taser is an acronym for "Tom Swift's Electric Rifle."
Law enforcement agencies liked the concept but were unimpressed by the execution of the early stun gun. Sales were sluggish. In 1993, two brothers, Patrick and Tom Smith, bought the Taser technology. Working out of Cover's garage, the Smiths formed Air Taser. For several years they struggled to gain the respect of law enforcement without success.
Then, in 1999, the company developed its most powerful stun weapon yet — the Advanced M26 Taser. The new Tasers looked and felt like real guns and boasted 94 percent effectiveness in stopping a suspect. Police liked the look, the feel and the results.
In 2001 Rick Smith declared in a newspaper interview: "This is the gun of the future." And he was right. Sales rocketed from $2.2 million in 1999 to $24.5 million in 2003 to $67.7 million last year. Air Taser changed its name to Taser International and began exporting its weapons to law enforcement agencies worldwide.
In thousands of U.S. markets, residents saw variations of the same story in their newspaper: The police department has new non-lethal weapons. Officers are excited to have another effective tool to stop crime. Anecdotes and statistics demonstrate how Tasers have saved the lives of reckless police suspects without injury.
However, in many markets, the story of "Police Issued Stun Guns" was followed by another story. The names change, but the headline is remarkably consistent: "Man Dies After Police Use Stun Gun."
When Taser International introduced the M26, the company assured customers the weapon had passed several safety tests and the shocks were not strong enough to cause any permanent damage.
Taser's primary research, however, consisted of a company-paid farmer and doctor shocking a single pig in 1996 and five dogs in 1999 to see if the weapon would cause cardiac arrest. The tests were not published for independent review.
Additional studies did not prove Tasers safe, either. A 1989 Canadian study found Tasers caused heart attacks in pigs with pacemakers. A 1999 Department of Justice study found an electronic device weaker than the Taser can cause cardiac arrest in people with heart conditions. A 2002 study by the British government concluded, "The high-power Tasers cannot be classed, in the vernacular, as 'safe.'"
The most recent major study was conducted by a division of the Department of Defense last year, but it was not publicly released. Taser declared the report determined Tasers "will generally be effective ... without a significant risk of unintended severe effects."
But the Air Force scientist who conducted the study has said otherwise. According to media reports, the study actually found Tasers caused heart damage in pigs, that more research on the weapons was needed and that Taser victims should receive medical monitoring.
It wasn't the first time a medical professional has been caught in the middle of the Taser controversy. Last year a South Carolina coroner said that Taser pressured his office to reverse an autopsy report that stated the Taser's electrical charge contributed to a man's death. Researchers for Underwriters Laboratories discovered Taser was using their research on electrical fences to claim stun guns were safe enough to shock a two year old.
"They used our information, saying what's good for electric fences is good for Taser," said Underwriters Laboratories spokesperson Paul Baker. "We felt it was very misleading; it's apples and oranges." To some, the fact there is any debate as to the weapon's effectiveness is itself cause for concern.
Tom Aveni, 23-year police trainer with the Police Policy Studies Council in New Mexico, calls the Taser research "disjointed and compartmentalized."
"The major source of information on Taser is Taser International itself," Aveni said. "Every major study has either been directly or indirectly funded or influenced by Taser. There just hasn't been enough independent research to set the record straight."
Until there is, Amnesty International has called for a moratorium on the use of stun weapons until a rigorous, independent study of their use and effects can be completed. Failing that, AI recommends law enforcement agencies establish policies limiting use to situations in which the weapons are an alternative to deadly force, and create mechanisms for oversight and accountability when officers violate these policies.
Though Taser International did not return calls for this story, CEO Rick Smith has released statements about AI's stance. "Amnesty International should support a life saving technology used by law enforcement to reduce suspect and officer injuries and one that has saved thousands of suspect lives," Smith said.
William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, counters: "Our only issue is that Tasers are distributed, marketed and utilized at such a rapidly growing rate, and there remains so much uncertainty in regard to their full health implications. After all, the world went for how many hundreds of years without police officers having Tasers at their disposal."
Since 1999 the number of people who died after being shot by Tasers has climbed steadily. But they usually don't die for a few minutes or an hour after the charge. Also, people who die after receiving a Taser shock typically have underlying medical problems or were on stimulating drugs such as cocaine or PCP at the time.
For years Taser officials insisted that no medical examination of a shock victim had ever cited their guns for causing "injury or death to another human being." But a 2004 investigation by The Arizona Republic found Taser never saw the autopsy reports, instead relying on media accounts and police anecdotes. After an exhaustive search, The Republic linked the guns to 94 deaths in the United States and Canada since 1999 — similar to AI's findings.
Most medical examiners cited the primary cause of death as cardiac arrest, drug intoxication or positional asphyxiation. In at least 12 deaths, medical examiners listed the Taser as a contributing factor. One theory is that a pre-existing condition or drug use, combined with shock from a Taser during a period of anxiety or exertion — such as resisting arrest — can bring about increased acidosis in the blood, leading to death. Such conditions have also resulted in the sudden death of police suspects and prisoners without the use of a stun gun. "I think what we're seeing with Taser is an exacerbation of pre-existing conditions," Aveni said.
But which pre-existing conditions put people at risk? What is the weapon's effect on people with a heart condition? With osteoporosis? How do you medically treat a person after he has received a shock?
There are significant research studies underway to explore such issues. The questions have prompted the largest association of police chiefs to issue a national bulletin in February urging police departments to review their use of stun guns while the association studies Taser related deaths.
Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University, believes Taser has been "oversold as a safe instrument" and has called for more research. Yet Lewinski draws a hard line against taking the weapons away from police officers, an idea he said "would literally create a catastrophe for peace officers."
"Taser was remiss in not doing more research," Lewinski said. "But Amnesty International is remiss in calling for a moratorium on a useful tool that's saved a lot of lives."
There's at least one cop — one former cop — who disagrees, however.
"Did my opinion [of the Taser] change?" mused Powers, the officer whose vertebrae was crushed during his training test.
"Well, you know, it did," he said. "I believed what they told me. They told me it couldn't hurt me. As time went on, I did more research, and I realized Taser was not tested on people. This thing should have been completely and fully tested by somebody before it went out on the market. I assumed it had already been done. Nobody knows completely what this thing does. Nobody. And that puts the public and law enforcement at risk. Take this thing off the market until it's been tested."