More bad news for Taser guns: They raise deaths in custody

Published 5 February 2009

University of California-San Francisco study finds that sudden death of people held by California police increased sixfold in the first year after police departments there began using Taser stun guns

We have reported about the ongoing interest in nonlethal weapons — but also about the fact that some devices which are advertised as nonlethal may kill people. In the later category are the ubiquitous taser guns, which have been found to cause death under certain, but far from uncommon, circumstances (see, for example, HS Daily Wire of 15 October 2007 and 29 September 2008).

A University of California-San Francisco study found that sudden deaths among people being held by police in California increased sixfold in the first year after police departments there began using Taser stun guns. The finding appears to back Amnesty International’s view that Tasers are a threat to life.

Arizona-based Taser International, which makes the weapons, says that the study is flawed because it relies on “suspect data sampling” from a limited number of police departments.

The researchers compared death rates in custody in the five years before and after the Taser was introduced. Death rates returned to previous levels in the second year. The UCSF team says this was probably because police changed the way they used the stun guns after the first year.

Study findings are published online today by the American Journal of Cardiology. The journal will publish the study in an upcoming print edition.

Physicians and law enforcement agencies need real-world knowledge of the effects of Taser use so that risks can be weighed in establishing appropriate policies and techniques,” said study author Zian H. Tseng, MD, an assistant clinical professor in cardiology at UCSF. “There have been a number of animal and controlled human studies, but none that test how Tasers are used in the real world, where subjects may have pre-existing medical conditions or be under the influence of narcotics.”

Sudden deaths are extremely rare events, but it is important to look into why these events happen and whether law enforcement agencies are fully informed of the real-world risks of Taser deployment,” said Byron Lee, MD, co-author of the paper and assistant clinical professor in cardiology at UCSF.

Stun guns like the Taser deliver a high-frequency, high-voltage current to incapacitate victims by causing momentary neuromuscular incapacitation. They are in use by over 12,000 law enforcement, military and correctional agencies in the U.S. and abroad, according to reporting by Taser International.