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A CrunchGear Investigation: The Trouble With Tasers – What The Manufacturer Doesn't Want You To Know

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To the more than 10,000 law enforcement agencies who use them, Taser-style stun guns probably seem like a godsend — a quick jolt of electricity and even the brawniest and most berserk criminal can be brought to the ground. No guns, no deaths and no permanent damage.

Or so Taser International, the weapon’s manufacturer, would have you believe.

However, a CrunchGear investigation paints a different picture. Not only have at least 167 people died after being Tasered, according to The Arizona Republic (although the number of these deaths that can be directly attributed to the weapons is disputed), but there appears to be an aggressive effort by the company to silence critics and to control data and, on occasion, manipulate statistics with the intent of preserving an illusion of safety surrounding its products.

What follows is a column, and is opinion. All statements of fact have been attributed to sources. I have to say this because Taser is a highly litigious company that does not take kindly to criticism, as you shall see.

Not surprisingly, Taser executives are adamant about the safety of its products — ask one and they’ll likely bring up the “hundreds” of Taser shots they’ve taken themselves over the years.

In fact, Taser is so proactive in painting the image of its products as safe that it offers to shoot anybody who approaches the company’s booths at trade shows — an offer that ABC News reporter Amanda Congdon took up at CES this year in one of the show’s most memorable moments (an act that Jon Stewart called “Look-at-me-reporter-crap”).

And the company is quick to tout the devices’ law enforcement benefits. “The field results are extraordinary and dramatic,” says Steve Tuttle, Taser International’s vice president of communications. “We’re reducing officer-related shootings. Here in Phoenix there was a 54-percent drop in officer-related shootings that Phoenix reported as a direct result of Taser technology.”

This would be great, if it weren’t a spin on the facts. A quick call to the Phoenix Police Department revealed this statistic to be highly misleading.

“Tasers were deployed to everybody in the department beginning in 2003,” says Dave Kelly, a Phoenix Police Department lieutenant who works in officer training. “We went from 24 officer-related shootings in 2002 to 12 in 2003. But we didn’t stay there. In 2004, we had 20. It really bounces back and forth. Can we attribute any drop to the implementation of the Taser? I’m not comfortable saying we can.”

However, for the sake of balance it must be noted that Kelly, as well as other law enforcement officials I spoke to, say Tasers have an important place in law enforcement when responsibly implemented. Of course, it is only logical that having access to a weapon less lethal than a gun would prevent deaths. This statistical manipulation, though, appears emblematic of how the company handles data related to the safety and effects of its devices.

Double-blind

I come from a family of scientists and was raised to believe that the peer-reviewed system of verifying and disseminating scientific data is the best we have. From a personal standpoint, the most offensive actions from the company are undoubtedly its practice of suing medical examiners as well as researchers who have published peer-reviewed reports critical of Taser’s products. Not only does this violate the good faith of the scientific community, but it has a chilling effect on research — discouraging scientists from even touching related studies out of fear of retaliation. This was confirmed by a number of scientists who refused to speak to me on the record regarding Taser out of fear of reprisals.

Taser’s lawsuits include cases against medical examiners in Indiana and Ohio who cited Taser-induced electrical shocks as the cause of death. But perhaps most striking is the case of James Ruggieri. In early 2006, Ruggieri published an article in the peer-reviewed Journal of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers. The study, “one of the few scientific studies of Taser’s electric jolt in which the company did not participate,” as The Arizona Republic put it, concluded that Tasers were far more powerful than the company acknowledged and that the devices are capable of causing fatal heart rhythms.

Not taking the criticism lightly, the company sued Ruggieri for defamation, claiming he lacked the expertise to make such judgments, even though his story passed through the rigors of the peer-review screening process.

“They are ruling with a very heavy hand all the data,” says one researcher who requested anonymity on the subject, again out of fear of retaliation. “An immediate red flag in the scientific community is ‘who is funding the source.’ I’m not aware of that many independent studies on the safety of Tasers — most of the research is from people who are somehow associated with the company.”

While the number of completely independent studies on the dangers of Tasers is limited, some of the ones that do exist suggest they are anything but harmless — particularly in regards to their effects on the heart and the nervous system.

For example, in addition to Ruggieri’s study, a recent study conducted by scientists in Toronto on pigs showed that Taser shots to the chest can interfere with heart rhythms in a way that causes instant death. (To avoid such results, if somebody must get shocked, Dr. Zian Tseng, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, suggests law enforcement aim for the limbs or back, so as to avoid effecting the heart. And, if possible, he suggests Taser-issued officers carry defibrillators in the trunks of their cars in order to respond to any unexpected cardiac issues.)

And then there are the effects of Tasers on the human brain and nervous system. Although there is very little research on this, studies have been conducted examining the effects of electrical shocks that are virtually identical to the ones delivered by Tasers. These studies suggest such shocks can cause serious, and potentialy long-term, damage to cognition and the central nervous system.

“For the most part, the only information that’s available is promotional information provided by the company,” says Neil Pliskin, Ph.D. director of neuropsychology and professor of clinical psychiatry and neurology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Some electrically injured patients are at risk for other types of insults to their brain and central nervous system, and it would seem to be incumbent on the scientific community and those who are interested in the effects of electrical shock to look at this issue. Any risk of electrical shock could theoretically be applied in consideration of Tasers, although until scientific information comes out either in support or against it, it would just be speculative. The problem is that studies still need to be done. But lets put it this way: If it was me invited to go over and get shocked at their booth, I’d probably decline it.”

Better Than a Gunshot

Even Taser’s harshest critics acknowledge that being shocked is highly preferable to a gunshot. The problem seems to be that in its proactive presentation of the products as nearly-harmless — through a combination of suing critics (effectively silencing potential critics), controlling relevant research, and offering Taser shocks to anybody who passes by its booths at conventions — the public perception of Tasers becomes one of a device that is entirely non-lethal, making their misuse inevitable. Just ask Mustafa Tabatabainejad.

RELATED: Tasers: A Shock To The System (PC Magazine)

UPDATE – TASER’s Mark W. Kroll [BIO] responds in an email:

The infamous Ruggieri clearly does not count as he is a high-school
dropout fired by the Coast Guard where he had been hired by falsely
claiming to be an engineer. His junk science manuscript, “Lethality of
TASERs” was rejected by the reviewers for the Journal of Forensic
Science so he has never had a peer-reviewed article. Ruggieiri got a
friend to do a photocopy “publication” of an amusing piece which
claimed, among other things, that cardiomyopathy patients could die
from the static shock of walking across carpet or combing their hair.
He also apparently solved the energy problem by getting 704 watts out
of a TASER device powered by a 30 watt pack of 8 AA cells. One glance
at this piece will disabuse anyone of the fantasy that it was ever peer
reviewed.

Kroll also asserts that TASER has never sued a peer-reviewed researcher.

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