Taser International On The Defensive

It's been a busy couple of months for the PR department of Taser International, the maker of the controversial Taser stun gun. Canada is in the midst of 9 separate inquiries investigating the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski after he was shocked repeatedly with a Taser gun at Vancouver's main airport. Just last week, a Canadian died in custody, 4 days after being shot with a Taser gun--right on the heels of another Canadian who died 30 hours after being shocked. According to CBS News, at least 6 North Americans died after being shocked by Taser guns in late November. Taser International has successfully defended itself in court in all post-Taser death cases, and it's easy to see why: why would it take 4 days for an electric shock to kill someone? But I can't help but be a little spooked by these unexplained deaths.

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On Nov. 23, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a memo suggesting that the use of the TaserX26â''the model of the weapon commonly used by police departmentsâ''might constitute torture. Newspapers the world over picked up the story, including here, here and here.

But let's take a closer look at the text of that UN report.

This is all it says about Taser guns:

The Committee was worried that the use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use.

The text was embedded in a section on prison deaths in Portugal. Taser International lashed back, saying that the committee was â''out of touchâ'' with the challenges faced by police departments. I can understand why, in an environment where prisoners are already treated poorly, the abuse of captives would be a valid concern. Nonetheless, I have to side with Taser on this one: the UN document's vague references to supporting evidence and the indeterminate mention of â''the use of TaserX26 weaponsâ'' does nothing to clarify what makes it torture. Do all Taser uses constitute torture, even when electric shock is used as an alternative to a bullet?

A few days later, a study by the United Kingdom Defence Science and Technology Laboratory was published, which concluded that Taser guns are unlikely to harm human hearts under normal conditions, and Taser Internationalâ''s stock rose the most it had in four months.

But if that is the case, what explains the rash of deaths in the last few weeks? Is it just an unlucky coincidence? Are they really, as Taser International would have us believe, more cases of a mysterious disorder known as â''excited delirium,â'' which the company describes as a potentially fatal condition? The medical literature so far supports the theory that Tasers do not cause cardiac arrest in normal hearts, but that doesn't say anything about stressed or diseased hearts. For IEEE Spectrum's in-depth discussion of why the human heart is generally safe from a Taser shock, check out this piece, written by Mark Kroll, a prominent biomedical engineer. For an accessible look at how Taser experiments are carried out in the lab, take a look at this piece written by Pat Tchou, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

At the core of this debate is a whole lot of sloppy talk. The lack of nuance in the UN committee's statement suggests that its members didn't really do their homework, whereas Taser's reliance on apocryphal diagnoses is not helping the company make its case.

For more on excited delirium, read the Globe & Mail's coverage of the second annual "Sudden Death, Excited Delirium and In-Custody Death Conference," which took place last week.

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