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The Very Real Dangers of Tasers - Pacific Standard

The Very Real Dangers of Tasers

Scientific research reveals the harmful effects of Tasers, on both body and mind.
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(Photo: James Mattil/Shutterstock)

(Photo: James Mattil/Shutterstock)

On Tuesday, the Miami New Times published the results of a yearlong investigation into the lethal misuse of Tasers by three of Miami’s police departments. The wide-sweeping piece describes how police officers often use Tasers in instances where there is no arrest taking place, and where the victims of tasering pose no physical danger. The cops taser the homeless to get them to leave an area, they taser the mentally ill who aren’t understanding their instructions, and they even once tasered a six-year-old who was having a tantrum in kindergarten.

“In less than eight years, Miami Police, Miami-Dade Police, and Miami Beach Police officers have used their Tasers more than 3,000 times,” Michael E. Miller writes. “At least 11 men have died after being tasered by cops during that same period, including five in the past 16 months.”

These "less lethal" weapons are used in over 17,000 American law enforcement agencies, and are deployed, on average, 904 times every day.

Taser International, which also happens to manufacture the body cameras that police departments are now buying in bulk (and experiencing a huge windfall because of it), responded to Miller’s piece in writing. A company spokesman argued that Tasers reduce the risk of injury to both suspects and police—cops use Tasers so they won’t have to use guns, essentially—but he also pointed out that the company now describes Tasers as “less lethal,” rather than “non lethal” weapons.

The impact of a Taser shock depends a lot on the overall health of the person being shocked, what substances may be in his or her body at the time, and how long the shock lasts. Often, when a person dies after being tasered, the autopsy will find a pre-existing heart condition, or the cause of death will be listed as a drug overdose. But many studies have looked at what makes Tasers so dangerous all on their own. A 2012 article in the journal Circulation showed how electrical shocks from Tasers can cause irregular heart rhythms, and, in some cases, send people into cardiac arrest. (Another Circulation article this year backed up that conclusion.)

There are other effects of a Taser shock that, while not lethal, still cause problems. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminologyby a group of criminologists from Arizona State University and Drexel University compared the cognitive abilities of new police recruits before and after they were tasered during training. The recruits took a battery of tests—measuring memory, learning, and coordination—three hours before being tasered, and then five minutes afterward, and again 24 hours later.

The researchers found that, five minutes after being shocked, the recruits suffered “statistically significant reductions in several measures of cognitive functioning.” (That study was funded by the National Institute of Justice. Taser International had funded its own study a year earlier, which found that, while tasering does impair “neurocognitive” functioning, the impact only lasts about an hour.)

The cops taser the homeless to get them to leave an area, they taser the mentally ill who aren’t understanding their instructions, and they even once tasered a six-year-old who was having a tantrum in kindergarten.

The recruits seemed to be back to normal 24 hours later, but, the authors of the first study argued, that immediate post-tasering time period is important. That would typically be the time in a confrontation between a cop and a suspect when an arrest would take place. What if the post-taser cognitive fog led an suspect to waive his or her Miranda rights, and to say something incriminating that he or she might not otherwise have said?

The authors added that defense attorneys have previously tried to get judges to throw out statements made by their clients immediately after being tasered, precisely because of their mentally impaired states at the time. But in the absence of research like theirs, the authors wrote, judges have made “idiosyncratic decisions” in these cases. They argued that these new findings “involve serious issues including constitutionally protected rights of the accused.”

None of the researchers of these studies go so far as to suggest that Tasers should not be used at all in police departments; they only stress that anyone who use them be very well trained and aware of the immediate risks they pose to both body and mind. And if the rise in Taser use is any indication, this will be an increasingly pressing issue for departments across the United States. According to statistics given to the New Times by Taser International, these “less lethal” weapons are used in over 17,000 American law enforcement agencies, and are deployed, on average, 904 times every day.

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