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Tasers continue to draw scrutiny.

In response to mounting concerns that its widely used stun gun causes serious injuries, Taser International has updated its guidelines on proper use of the weapon, several advocacy groups have urged police departments to revise their Taser policies, and one municipality has filed suit against the company for misleading police departments about the devices' safety.

Many law enforcement agencies use Taser stun guns to subdue suspects by shocking them with 50,000 volts of electrical charge. Suspects as well as police officers have filed lawsuits against Taser, saying the device has caused deaths and injuries. (Allison Torres Burtka, Electric Shock from Tasers Can Injure and Kill, Lawsuits Claim, TRIAL, May 2005, at 16.) Amnesty International has reported 114 deaths linked to Tasers since 2001.

Police departments have been criticized for using Tasers too freely. But Taser International misrepresented its product and testing to police, said Paul Geller, a Boca Raton, Florida, lawyer who represents the Village of Dolton, Illinois, in a class action against the company. (Village of Dolton v. Taser Int'l, Inc., No. 05C 4123 (N.D. Ill. filed July 18, 2005).)

"Taser marketed the stun gun as safe, but police departments are getting sued left and right," Geller said. The class action, on behalf of other municipalities and agencies that have purchased Tasers, alleges the company "knowingly, intentionally, and recklessly concealed the true safety profile of Tasers." The manufacturer's motion to dismiss was denied in October.

"This is the first case of its kind, and it is an important case for police departments," Geller said. The complaint notes that many people in the medical, law enforcement, and human rights communities agree that "more research is needed to fundamentally understand how Tasers interact with the human body."

Taser International itself updated its training materials to include stronger warnings. A training bulletin released in June says, "Repeated, prolonged, and/or continuous exposure (s) to the Taser electrical discharge may impair breathing and respiration." It also warns that Tasers may cause "temporary incapacitation or the inability to catch oneself during a fall"--which can be especially dangerous for pregnant women--and strong muscle contractions that "can result in injuries to tissues, organs, bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, [and] joints, and stress/compression fractures to bones and vertebrae."

A pregnant woman who lost her baby, a man who suffered a compression fracture, and a man who fell from a tree after being shocked are among those who previously alleged injuries from the Taser.

The company exaggerated Tasers' safety, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said in a report released in September. The report recommends that more police departments implement policies limiting Taser use on pregnant women, the elderly, children, and people who are unconscious or already handcuffed or restrained.

In a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in September, two Chicago doctors suggested that police officers who use Tasers be equipped with external defibrillators. The letter describes the case of a teenager who was shocked with a Taser, collapsed, and went into ventricular fibrillation. Paramedics treated him within two minutes of the incident and he survived.

Police organizations also have called for changes. The International Association of Chiefs of Police released a report last year urging law enforcement agencies to use Tasers cautiously and offering suggestions on how to develop policies and procedures.

The Police Executive Research Forum issued guidelines for Taser use in October. They include recommendations that officers use the devices only on people who are actively resisting or "exhibiting active aggression," not on passive suspects; that officers evaluate suspects after shocking them once; that suspects be shocked for only five seconds at a time; that training programs emphasize that repeated shocks "appear to increase the risk of death or serious injury and should be avoided where practical"; and that people who are shocked receive medical treatment and monitoring.
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Author:Burtka, Allison Torres
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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