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Lethal force? Tasers are meant to save lives, yet hundreds die after their use by police

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The April 11 shooting death of Daunte Wright highlights problems with police use of Tasers that have contributed to at least 500 deaths since 2010.

Jo Ciavaglia, Josh Salman and Katie Wedell

The fatal shooting this month of Daunte Wright by a Minnesota patrol officer who allegedly confused her pistol for a Taser had every appearance of a freak accident.

Tasers are designed as nonlethal weapons, a tool for law enforcement officers to safely subdue noncompliant suspects. Had officer Kim Potter drawn the intended weapon and tased Wright instead of shooting him, the 20-year-old Black man might be alive today.

Yet Potter’s mistake was no anomaly.

It’s part of a pattern of sloppy, reckless and deadly use of the weapon involved in hundreds of deaths and injuries in the past decade because of substandard or inconsistent training for law enforcement, an investigation by USA TODAY and the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University found. 

Officers in many cases defied best practices recommended by device manufacturers and sidestepped basic use-of-force protocols.

In July 2013, a Chicago police officer tased a pregnant woman three times – including once in the abdomen – after she pretended to use her cellphone to record authorities towing her van. She miscarried her baby.

Four years later, two Arlington, Texas, police officers fired a Taser at a 39-year-old suicidal man after watching him douse himself with gasoline. The electrical currents immediately set Gabriel Olivas aflame and burned down his house. Olivas died of his injuries a few days later. 

Two years after that, Louisiana state troopers tased 49-year-old Ronald Greene at least three times in 20 seconds after he failed to stop his car for an unspecified traffic violation. Police initially told Greene’s family he died from crash injuries. But a medical report noted that his bruised and bloodied body also had two Taser probes still lodged in his back.

Such incidents highlight a lack of uniform state or national standards for the use of conducted-energy weapons like Tasers and comprehensive training for the officers who wield them.

No federal agency tracks how many people are killed or seriously injured after Taser use by law enforcement officers, nor how many departments are equipped with the devices. And no one keeps tabs on how many law enforcement agencies adopt the dozens of safety guidelines recommended by device manufacturers and other police training organizations.

One of the few sources tracking fatalities is an online database started by a former newspaper editor.

Since 2010, there have been at least 513 cases in which subjects died soon after police used Tasers on them, according to fatalencounters.org. Examples from the data include a man who fell to the ground and hit his head after being tased and many more who die after losing consciousness, sometimes hours after they were tased. Because there’s no government source for the data, the actual totals are undoubtedly higher, the website’s founder said.

Reporters at USA TODAY and the Arnolt Center scoured hundreds of pages of arrest and court documents from Pennsylvania to California, interviewed dozens of attorneys, law enforcement and criminal justice experts, and analyzed scores of documents. Among the findings:

  • In the absence of federal guidance, most decisions about Taser use and training are left to individual agencies. While some have adopted strict Taser policies and use-of-force reports, others give officers the tool without training. The result is a hodgepodge of guidelines with no outside oversight.
  • Compared with firearms training, Taser instruction is treated as an afterthought in many departments and training academies. The Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, for example, does not include Taser training in its 16-week police cadet training curriculum. One suburban Philadelphia police department allowed virtually all its officers to carry Tasers with lapsed certifications.
  • Taser-like devices are marketed as a less-lethal option for emergency self-defense and preventing harm. But police have been accused of using them as punishment, repeatedly firing 50,000 volts of electricity into people when there is no apparent imminent threat of harm, temporarily paralyzing the nervous system and muscles.

Four of five cases that ended in death began as calls for nonviolent incidents, and 84% were unarmed. In cases where race could be determined, Black people accounted for nearly 40% of those killed, about three times their share of the U.S. population.

“Mistakes happen,” said Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “But if mistakes happen over and over, they are not necessarily mistakes.”

Law enforcement and device manufacturers argue that Tasers and similar weapons have saved more lives than they’ve ended since law-enforcement agencies started using them more than two decades ago.

When used properly, such devices allow police officers to bring under control threatening and unruly subjects without the need for deadly force or physical restraint maneuvers, supporters say. They minimize the risk of harm to suspects and officers. 

While no reliable data exists on how often law enforcement uses weapons like Tasers, a 2011 Department of Justice report cited survey-based studies that put the risk of death from the devices at less than 0.25%, or 1 in 400.

Maria Haberfeld, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Mistakes happen. But if mistakes happen over and over, they are not necessarily mistakes.

“When you can use the Taser to stop a threat, that brings them home safely and brings the officer home safely,” said Sgt. Chad Parks, a 21-year veteran with the Plainfield Police Department in Indiana. “They’re not there for punishment.” 

Members of the public also support the use of Tasers. After the fatal shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man, by Philadelphia police last year, Wallace’s family called on the city to equip more officers with Tasers, saying he could still be alive had the officers who responded to his mental health crisis carried them. 

Yet there’s “no evidence” that Tasers reduce police use of firearms, according to a 2018 University of Chicago study that also found the devices had no impact on injury rates or the number of injuries in civilians. They did, though, reduce the rate of police injury.

Some experts suggest Taser’s reputation as a “less lethal” weapon may give officers a false sense of security.

“It’s not like a nightstick where you can control it,” said William McKnight, a former police officer and visiting criminal justice professor at Stockton University in New Jersey. “Once you fire it, it’s gone.”

Is police training adequate?

The company behind the best-known and most widely used conducted-energy weapon sold its first Taser to police in Florida in 1998. 

The technology had been around for more than 20 years by then but was slow to catch on because the original version used darts propelled by gunpowder, so the weapon was treated like a firearm under the law.

Jack Cover, an aerospace scientist working with Taser International Inc., modified the weapon in 1993 so it was powered by compressed nitrogen, allowing Tasers to be more widely marketed, according to his 2009 New York Times obituary. 

That same year, New Jersey became the last state to authorize the use of Taser-like weapons for law enforcement. They are now legal to sell and own in at least 46 states and Puerto Rico.  

In an email response to questions, the company – which changed its name to Axon Enterprises in 2017 – disputed the number of deaths “causally related to the use of Taser.” Axon put the total at 26 since the device was developed, with most deaths occurring from falls and fires.

Where an allegation of a “Taser-related” death occurs, the most common causes are drug intoxication and heart disease, the company said.

Axon said training should include “both Axon Academy training, where users gain the knowledge necessary for the appropriate use of Taser energy weapons, as well as practical and scenario-based training, which helps develop important skills for a successful deployment in the field.”

But Taser training is too often cursory, use-of-force experts said. They described most departments’ enforcement of guidelines as weak, outdated and sometimes contradictory to established best practices. 

Taser training primarily focuses on how to operate the weapon, which is not good enough, said Lon Bartel, a Taser master trainer and director of training and curriculum for VirTra, an Arizona-based company that uses virtual reality to replicate real-life scenarios for law enforcement officers.  

“You don’t just draw your Taser and fire,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the right tool, and sometimes it’s not.” 

Fewer than 1 in 3 officers have been trained in how to switch from a Taser to a firearm and vice versa as the situation changes, Bartel said.  

A police taser with copy-space. (Getty Images)

Guidelines and warnings ignored 

As early as 2005, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national nonprofit policy organization, issued 52 guidelines calling for tighter restrictions on the use of Taser-like devices, including barring use on passive or fleeing subjects, barring use by multiple officers on a single person, and requiring mandatory safety training.  

But the group cannot force adoption of its guidelines and said it doesn’t know how many of the 18,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies have done so.

The same is true when Axon urges changes in how its weapons are used.

For example, the company in 2009 urged officers to carry Tasers on the “weak draw” side of the gun belt to reduce the risk of pulling the wrong weapon. Since 2001, police officers have confused Taser-like devices with their service weapons at least 16 times, USA TODAY has found. Four instances ended in death, including Daunte Wright.

Yet the Roeland Park Police Department in Kansas did not update its use-of-force policy to reflect Axon’s recommended change until three days after Wright’s April 11 shooting death in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

Brooklyn Center’s use-of-force policy required weak-draw Taser placement at the time of Wright’s death. The city’s police chief, Tim Gannon, said in a news conference this month that Potter was trained to carry her sidearm on the right side of her duty belt and her Taser on the left.

Axon also has issued warnings since at least 2017 that repeated Taser hits increase the risk for serious injury and death. 

But a lawsuit claims those warnings were ignored by the Wilson, Oklahoma, Police Department, whose use-of-force policy did not prohibit repeated Taser strikes when two officers killed 28-year-old Jared Lakey in July 2019. 

The officers fired their Tasers 53 times over nine minutes at the unarmed and naked man as he lay on the ground, according to the lawsuit. Lakey died two days later. The former officers face charges of second-degree murder.

In California, Taser training is not mandated as part of minimum police cadet training requirements. That’s a major concern to Randy Shrewsberry, executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform in Los Angeles and a former police officer, who fears without proper training officers may turn to Tasers in circumstances when minimal or no force would have been sufficient.

“We encourage lawmakers to not only evaluate the minimal training requirements that are offered but examine data for the efficacy of reducing deadly encounters,” he said.

The Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union shared similar concerns after finding a “profound variation and lack of consistency in regulating officer’s behavior” among Taser policies for the state’s 99 sheriff offices in an analysis released in 2014. The ACLU’s efforts to push for legislation on statewide requirements was never acted upon.  

Without a comprehensive approach, proficiency with the weapon, like any practical skill, rapidly deteriorates, said Von Kleim, a use-of-force trainer and spokesman for the Force Science Institute in Minnesota. 

In New Hope, Pennsylvania, police officers fired Tasers six times between 2008 and 2019. On one of those occasions, a 33-year veteran officer shot and seriously injured a 38-year-old man during a scuffle in a department holding cell after confusing his Taser with his service weapon.

The New Hope officer, Cpl. Matt Zimmerman, was trained and certified only once on how to use the device – 11 years earlier – despite a 2007 department policy requiring annual Taser retraining.  

Zimmerman, 65, had never used the device in his job before March 3, 2019, according to department records. All but two New Hope officers had lapsed Taser certifications, some for as long as Zimmerman.  

At least three times, officers with lapsed Taser certification fired the weapons in the field.   

Tasers as punishment

According to criminal justice experts, Tasers are deployed too often under circumstances when no danger or physical resistance exists.

In 4 out of every 5 cases that ended with a Taser-related death in the past decade, officers were responding to a nonviolent incident, according to the Fatal Encounters database. Eighty-four percent of the victims were unarmed at the time. 

In one such encounter from 2019, a National City, California, police officer fired a Taser five times within a minute at an unarmed 61-year-old man who was slow to comply with officers’ instructions, police body camera footage shows. The man died 16 days later. 

In another incident six years earlier, Worth County, Iowa, sheriff’s deputies fired two Tasers at least 15 separate times to subdue a 39-year-old man who was lying on his back and did not roll over as instructed. The man later died.

The ACLU has documented a pattern of police misuse of Tasers, including against children, pregnant women, people who suffer from mental illness and people passively resisting police commands. And in 2007, the United Nations declared Tasers a tool of torture.

“A Taser shouldn’t be used if there are four cops (surrounding a suspect) – you grab him,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore Police officer who now chairs the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

A disproportionate number of the victims in these Taser-related deaths were Black, the data show. 

In incidents where race was determined, African Americans accounted for 39% of the Taser-related deaths since 2010, even though they comprise just 13% of the population. 

That’s higher than the rate of Black people killed by firearms and all other police encounters, which the data shows at 26%.

In the case of Ronald Greene, Louisiana state troopers tased the Black man almost immediately after telling him to put his arms behind his back, said attorney Lee Merritt, who is representing Greene’s estate in a federal wrongful death suit. 

Authorities have not publicly released body camera footage of the incident, but they allowed Merritt and Greene’s family to watch it with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.

It shows Greene exiting his car with his hands up, saying, “I’m sorry” before he was tased, Merritt said. It also shows troopers tasing Green again as he lay on his belly and later hog-tied, shackled, beaten and dragged.

“It was brutal. It was one of the worst videos that I have ever seen,” Merritt said. “The video tells us there was no need for tasering and that tasing was contributory to his ultimate death.”

Accountability and solutions

With heightened scrutiny of police after a tumultuous year marked by high-profile, officer-caused fatalities like that of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, experts believe the time is ripe for Taser reforms.

In March, Utah enacted a new law requiring law enforcement officers to file a report every time they point a Taser-like weapon at someone. 

No other state’s legislature has introduced proposals to regulate police use of those weapons last year or so far this year, according to a review of the National Conference of State Legislatures database. 

Later this year, a more restrictive use-of-force policy will take effect in New Jersey. It emphasizes de-escalation and other techniques to avoid police use of force. Among the changes is limiting Taser use only to subjects actively threatening harm or engaged in an assault.

The state will also start collecting data on all less-lethal device use, applying some of the same scrutiny to Tasers that guns now receive.

New Jersey already has what are widely considered the strictest device regulations for police use in the country. The state requires a “robust” investigation of police Taser deployments, including a review by the county prosecutor’s office, and, if the deployment is problematic, the attorney general’s office. New Jersey policing agencies have reported an average of 40 Taser deployments a year among law enforcement between 2013 and last year.

Other agencies have updated their policies after fatal events. 

After the Arlington, Texas, police officers set a gasoline-soaked Olivas on fire with their Tasers, the agency banned use of the device on people who may be resisting arrest but show no signs they intend to harm officers or others.

The department previously had left it to officers’ discretion whether to use the device in the presence of flammable liquid or fumes, according to a lawsuit filed by Olivas’ widow.

“Our officers had become more reliant on discharging the Taser versus going hands-on,” said Kevin Kolbye, Arlington’s assistant police chief.

Arlington also created a unit to review all use-of-force incidents and ensure policies are aligned with industry best practices and current court rulings.

And two years ago it started separately tracking the number of times its officers drew and pointed a Taser – even when the device was not fired. Kolbye credited the policy changes with reducing Taser use by 25%.

In New Hope, the 2019 Taser-confusion incident prompted Police Chief Michael Cummings to make immediate and long-term reforms within the department. 

Among them was a move to obtain Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation, a standard met by just 1 in 10 of the state’s 1,300 police departments that will build more accountability over the department’s actions by constantly reviewing, updating and meeting best-practice models.

Police reform experts said agencies shouldn’t wait until tragedy strikes to adopt tougher standards. 

“We need to put everything on the table now,” said Brian Higgins, a former Bergen County, New Jersey, police chief who’s now a criminal justice instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Higgins also suggests that now is the time device manufacturers consider a redesign, perhaps by removing its handle and trigger firing mechanism, which act like a firearm that police are trained to automatically draw with little thought. 

“The (firearms) training is ingrained in their memory and muscle memory is use of a firearm,” he said. “Maybe it’s just too close.”  

Contributing: Taylor Killough, Laura Gerber, Ben Price, Brianna Lanham, Alyssa White, Sofia Goldstein, Rachel Van Voorhis, Lily Wray, Nadia Scharf, Drake Garbacik, Nathan Moore, Alyssa Velez, Payton Romans and Marin Pisani of the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University

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