Taser Use Leads to Another Fatality

While the stun gun has been immensely successful in lowering the number of fatalities in confrontations between law enforcement officers and those suspected of criminal behavior, its record is far from perfect. In recent times, use of the most popular brand of the weapon, the Taser, has created an ongoing controversy. Now, add another black mark to its record.

The Pioneer Press of Minneapolis/St. Paul reports that Minnesota State Patrol officers attempting to subdue an "uncooperative" motorist involved in a traffic accident yesterday used a Taser on him and that he subsequently died.

The fatality in Minnesota cannot as yet be attributed to use of the Taser (an autopsy is pending), but the circumstances seem to point in its direction. This undoubtedly will add more fuel to the debate over the role of stun guns in the administration of non-lethal force by the police.

Although "Don't tase me, bro!" made headlines in 2007 as the year's top quote in the "Yale Book of Quotations" for reasons that border on the farcical, there is nothing humorous about the recent string of deadly encounters in which a Taser was used by police and other officials in the exercise of their duties.

To investigate the safety of Taser use, this publication last month ran a feature on the controversial stun gun, "How a Taser Works". In it, Associate Editor Sandra Upson framed the debate as follows:

Even if Tasers are proven to be entirely safe, there's the bigger question of whether the stun guns encourage police brutality. A Taser shock leaves almost no visible scarring or bruising, as a clubbing or a beating typically would. Could the absence of physical scars lift a psychological restraint on officer behavior? Should every Taser gun have a built-in video camera?

Equipping law-enforcement services with Tasers is likely to reduce the number of bullets officers fire from their handguns and therefore the number of serious injuries and deaths. At the same time, it may lead police to inflict an unwarranted amount of pain on individuals who commit only minor crimes.

She then turned the podium over to two experts to share their knowledge of the weapon's use with our audience. Mark W. Kroll, an IEEE senior member who holds more than 250 U.S. patents and sits on the board of Taser International, looked at the problem from an engineering perspective. And Patrick Tchou, a cardiologist who specializes in treating cardiac rhythm disturbances at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, examined the matter from the biomedical point of view.

Whilw they could not resolve the debate over the relative safety of the Taser as a non-lethal deterrent in potentially dangerous circumstances, their insights are instructive.

The bottom line when it comes to the Taser in law enforcement, our authors suggest, is that much more research is needed. That may be a shopworn phrase when it comes to controversial technical topics, but it sounds like an earnest plea to fellow engineers, scientists, and doctors in this case. All of us should be interested in what such future research could reveal. It is, after all, a matter of life and death.

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