USA: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International's concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers

November 29, 2004

USA: Excessive and lethal force? Amnesty International's concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers

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(108) The data lists type of force used. The total is thus higher than the total number of incidents, as more than one type of force was used in some incidents.

(109) There are no official national figures for the number of deaths in custody involving Taser use. The list of cases comes mainly from news reports, backed up where possible by other data.

(110) In many of the more recent cases, autopsy reports were not yet available. In some other cases Amnesty International's requests for autopsy reports were denied as state law prevented them from being made publicly available. Other information includes media reports, statements issued by coroners' offices, paramedic reports, lawsuits and information from lawyers acting for the deceased's family. In some cases Amnesty International sought additional information, including copies of police incident reports, from the police agencies involved; however, this latter information was often not made available due to ongoing investigations or pending litigation. In three cases, Amnesty International's sole source was information provided in a list of deaths published by Taser International on 5 April 2004, in response to a CBS Evening News report on stun fatalities broadcast on the same date.

(111) In many cases the deceased's race was not reported.

(112) A condition known as "excited delirium", sometimes also referred to as "in-custody death syndrome", has been attributed by some US coroners to a number of deaths in custody, especially in the case of persons on drugs or suffering from psychosis. It is a combination of signs and symptoms, including dangerously elevated body temperature levels, leading to sudden death. The theory relating to such a syndrome is controversial and disputed by some medical experts.

(113) See, for example, reference below (2.7) to the UK Defence Scientific Advisory Council subcommittee on non-lethal weapons' recommendation that further research should be undertaken into cardiac hazards associated with use of the Taser on certain at-risk subjects, including "possible hyper-susceptibility to Taser currents arising from drugs commonly used illegally in the UK, acidosis and pre-existing disease".

(114) Report to Amnesty International from Sidsel Rogde MD, PhD, Professor of Forensic Medicine, University of Oslo, June 2004. Cases where Dr Rogde found the Taser to be a possible contributory factor were: Eddie Alvarado, Richard Baralla, James Borden, Dennis Hammond, Glenn Leyba, Gordon Randall Jones and Michael Sharp Johnson. In some of the 16 cases reviewed there was insufficient information to assess the possible or likely role of the Taser. Dr. Rogde also reviewed autopsies in two cases of individuals who died from other stun weapons, cited later in this report (Garcia and Frazier); in those cases she concurred with coroners' findings that the stun weapons played a role in the deaths.

(115) Star-Telegram, 13 September 2004, reporting on case of Samuel Wakefield.

(116) There were reports of multiple Taser discharges in 41 of the 73 cases reviewed. However, the true number is likely to be higher as in 28 cases the number of discharges was not reported in the information available.

(117) Certification Lesson Plan, op cit.

(118) Advanced Taser M26, Field Report Analysis, November 2002 (Taser International) According to the data, one five-second discharge or less was used in 68% of incidents, with 32% of incidents requiring more than one cycle. In 521 incidents the duration and number of cycles is listed as "unknown", suggesting possible shortcomings in the reporting of data from the agencies involved.

(119) According to his family, Borden, who was diabetic and also suffered from bipolar disorder, was confused because he had not taken his insulin for several days.

(120) This means the Taser was used as a stun gun; it may have meant "drive stun", the common term for Taser use in stun-gun mode.

(121) Report of Dr Sidsel Rodge, op cit.

(122) From autopsy report on Eddie R. Alvarado, the Department of Coroner, Los Angeles, California, 15 June 2002.