Shock treatment

Last year, the city of Asheville received a $39,765 U.S. Justice Department grant to buy an assortment of “crowd control” equipment, including 30 new Taser stun guns with holsters and replacement cartridges. Details of the allocation were given at the Oct. 12 Asheville City Council meeting.

In November, Amnesty International released an extensive report, which found that the device is being used on unarmed people nearly 80 percent of the time. And in more than a third of these cases, the subject’s “verbal noncompliance” with an officer was deemed sufficient reason for Taser use. Accordingly, the group has urged law-enforcement agencies in the United States to suspend their use of the Taser until these concerns can be resolved.

And an Air Force lab reported last year that its study of Tasers had been unable to verify the device’s advertised safety due to insufficient data. What’s more, lab officials reiterated this finding after Taser International — which manufactures the popular stun gun — claimed the study had proven its product to be safe. More recently, the Justice Department has also weighed in with serious concerns about the use of Tasers in the United States.

In a recent letter in Mountain Xpress [“Hanrahan Gripes While Others Combat Drug Crimes,” April 20], Asheville resident Ivor Thomas took issue with writer Clare Hanrahan’s concern about the use of police Tasers, which she described as “potentially deadly” [“Failed Drug War Won’t Protect Our Children,” April 6 Xpress]. “Every officer that is certified to use a Taser is required to ‘take a hit’ with a Taser themselves in order to complete his or her training and certification,” wrote Thomas, asking, “Doesn’t that tell you anything?”

Actually, it tells us quite a lot. To begin with, it highlights the shortsightedness of using officers who have been rigorously screened for health problems and overall physical fitness as barometers for the safety of this weapon. For obvious reasons, the targets of Taser use cannot be so screened in the field. And in a growing number of documented incidents, the 50,000 volts of electricity delivered by a Taser have combined with an individual’s specific physiological or chemical condition or predisposition — often involving a heart problem, drug use (especially amphetamine-based drugs) or mental illness — to cause that person’s sudden death.

There’s also a substantial body of evidence that Tasers are routinely used by officers nationwide in situations that ordinarily would not be considered to require the use of force. For these reasons, many respected organizations have red-flagged the Taser as a law-enforcement tool, saying it should be shelved until its safety has been more fully and legitimately verified.

In late January, I contacted the Asheville Police Department, seeking general information about the city’s decision to buy more Tasers. When I politely asked whether the new Tasers had been purchased yet, Police Projects Administrator Kris Grayson declined to give me this information, saying it was a matter of “homeland security.” I tried following up with Mr. Grayson, hoping to clear up any misunderstanding about the purpose of my inquiry, but received no response. Since that time, others have also made formal requests for information about the APD’s use of Tasers and have come away empty-handed.

But it seems to me that city residents are entitled to this information. And I find it hard to imagine how it could possibly jeopardize our security. Indeed, the real threat to our security seems to be the local Police Department’s determination to continue using these devices in the face of so much evidence of misuse and harm.

To date, about 100 cases have been reported in which medical examiners in different parts of the country have officially determined that the shock from an officer’s Taser was either a causal or a contributing factor in a victim’s sudden death. In a particularly alarming case in Anderson, S.C., last August, the coroner concluded that a Taser had directly contributed to the death of 31-year-old William Teasley. Arrested for disorderly conduct, Teasley suddenly stopped breathing after being tasered by officers. The autopsy report states, “The added stress of Taser shock with its electrical current was proximal to the cardiac arrhythmia and must be considered contributory.” After the report was released, the coroner said his office was contacted by officials from Taser International who wanted the ruling reversed and all mention of the Taser removed from the autopsy report.

Has the APD taken these serious concerns into consideration when making a decision on Taser use? And how necessary is it for local law enforcement to use this potentially lethal device for “crowd control”? As long as the Police Department maintains a strict silence, we’ll never know.

Asheville should cancel any further acquisition of Tasers and should regard these devices — both legally and tactically — as lethal weapons. In the meantime, I encourage all interested readers to educate themselves about both the science and the politics of Taser use.

[Bud Howell lives in Asheville.]

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