Force Science News #212:
First study of Taser use against minors: No significant harm
I. First study of Taser use against minors: No significant harm
Juveniles are one of the population groups thought by some observers to be “potentially vulnerable” to unexpected significant injury from being Tasered. But the first study of real-world use of conducted electrical weapons on minors concludes that zaps from CEWs “during apprehension of adolescents does not seem to pose unacceptable levels of risk.”
None of the sample pool of young offenders analyzed suffered anything worse than mild injuries, specifically “superficial puncture wounds” from Taser probes and “superficial abrasions and mild lacerations,” most likely from falls or struggles with police.
While 8 percent of the subjects were hospitalized after being shocked, the vast majority of these were psych admissions. “None were related to injuries from CEW use,” the study team reports.
The researchers do state that “continued surveillance” of Taser use against young children and smaller-stature suspects is warranted. But they point out that CEW applications involving such individuals are rare because they usually can be “more easily physically apprehended.”
“The new findings are important,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, “because they document the probable outcome of Tasering teenagers, the juveniles most likely to come into resistant contact with officers. By confirming that there is no special risk involved in shocking adolescent offenders, the study adds one more scientific underscoring to the fact that Tasers are overwhelmingly a safe and effective control device in the law enforcement toolbox.”
FSI was not involved in the study and has no conflict-of-interest relationship with any CEW manufacturer.
The research is detailed in full in the September issue of the medical journal Pediatric Emergency Care in a report titled “Conducted Electrical Weapon (Taser) Use Against Minors”. Click here to access a free abstract.
RESEARCH MOTIVATION. The study was conducted by three MDs: Drs. Alison Gardner and William Bozeman of the Dept. of Emergency Medicine at Wake Forest University Health Services in Winston-Salem, NC, and Dr. William Hauda II of the Dept. of Emergency Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Falls Church, VA.
“Despite reassuring data” about the general safety of Tasers, the three write, “the effect of CEW use [has not been] well studied in those younger than 18 years.” Concerns have arisen about this “potentially vulnerable population” because of past studies by other researchers on anesthetized pigs, in which some pigs died of cardiac disruptions after CEW application.
Human studies have tended not to reveal adverse CEW-related heart problems in adult subjects. But the relatively small size of the fatally affected pigs (48-156 lbs.) “has led some to have concern regarding the effects of CEW exposure in a lower-weight population such as children and adolescents,” explain the researchers in the current study.
They decided to investigate for the first time the actual—as opposed to hypothetical—outcomes of Taser use on minors in real-world settings.
DEMOGRAPHICS. For their analysis, the doctors tapped the largest independent database of CEW uses in existence, established with National Institute of Justice funding seven years ago and continually updated with detailed reports from a cross-section of cooperating law enforcement agencies across the US. Each report includes results of medical screening for injuries and a use-of-force review after a successful CEW electrical discharge against a criminal suspect.
The researchers culled through 2,026 consecutive reports of CEW use and found 100 (4.93 percent) that involved subjects younger than 18. Their ages ranged from 13-17 and their weight from 110-380 lbs. The average age was 16, the average weight 156 lbs. Ninety-two percent were male.
Thirty per cent were known or suspected to be intoxicated at the time of Tasering, more than half from alcohol and about 20 percent from marijuana. More than 90 different reasons had brought them into contact with police, most often civil disturbance (15 percent), assault (12 percent), and burglary, robbery, or grand larceny (10 percent).
All had been shocked with the world’s most commonly used CEW, a Taser X26, overwhelmingly (79 percent) in probe mode. On average, there was just one discharge per customer in either probe or drive-stun mode. Most often (64 percent of the cases) impact was in the torso, followed by 32 percent in the extremities or buttocks. A small minority of contacts occurred in the back of the neck or scalp.
The researchers sorted their sample according to level of injury: none, mild, moderate, or severe, with “significant” injuries considered to be only those rated as moderate or severe.
In a subtitle of their published report, the team refers to their study as “A Shocking Analysis,” which, it turns out, was more a cute play on words than a description of their findings.
CASUALTY COUNT. Here’s what they discovered:
• “There were no cases of significant (moderate or severe musculoskeletal) injuries reported…among the 100 suspects.”
• Only 20 percent of the adolescents suffered even mild injuries. The majority of these were “superficial puncture wounds that were an expected result of contact with the CEW probes.” Unexpected mild injuries included eight “superficial” abrasions, two minor lacerations, and one nosebleed. “[N]o underlying injuries or long-term [consequences] were noted…. Minor injuries of these types are common after a physical struggle with police” and may have occurred from falling or fighting.
• About 30 percent of the encounters resulted in ER visits, but only eight subjects were hospitalized. Seventy-five per cent of these “were specifically noted to be for psychiatric reasons…. [N]one were related to injuries from CEW use.”
• “[T]here were no reported clinical symptoms…that would suggest cardiac dysrhythmia…or alteration in level of consciousness.” The only case in which ER physicians expressed initial concern about a heart-related reaction involved a 6 ft. 3 in., 260 lb. 17-year-old who was physically restrained by officers during his arrest. Ultimately, he was “discharged after evaluation” with no “persistent cardiac effects.”
• “There were no deaths noted during apprehension or during time in police custody.”
In all, the researchers write, “Based on our results, the data support that CEW use during apprehension of adolescents does not seem to pose unacceptable levels of risk.”
CAVEAT. The researchers note one caution about their results. “[A]n important limitation to this study is the stature of our minor suspects. The [average] weight of our suspects was 168 lb., and the mean height was 5 ft. 8 in. tall; this population of minors mirrors the physiology of adolescents and adults more than that of young/small children.” Thus, “Continued surveillance of younger/smaller-stature suspects is warranted.”
That said, the researchers advise that “Decisions and policies about the use of CEWs on juveniles…should be based on scientific study, with regard to demonstrated risks and benefits in the context of available alternative force options.”
TRIVIA. In the context of discussing CEW use against juveniles, it’s interesting to recall that the Taser was named after the inventor’s favorite childhood book character, Tom Swift, a young genius who invented a rifle that fired bolts of electricity. The name Taser is an acronym for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electronic Rifle.”
[Note: Another recent Taser study involving Dr. Bozeman was reported in Force Science News Transmission #211, sent Aug. 23. That report concerned Bozeman’s research into real-world cardiac consequences of CEW exposure. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org If you need a copy of FSN #211 prior to it being posted to the Force Science News Archive.]
II. Free Webinar on officer safety, health, & performance research
A free national webinar for LEOs on Sept. 18 will explore the links between officer health, performance, and safety and what agencies and individuals can do to improve the unacceptable status quo, which last year saw at least 320 lives lost through line-of-duty murders, accidents, and suicides.
A panel of experts will discuss results of various research projects conducted under the auspices of the National Institute of Justice and the changes in policies and practices their findings appear to support.
• Prof. Bryan Vila, of Washington State University, an authority on officer fatigue;
• Prof. John Violanti, of the University at Buffalo (NY), who specializes in the long-term impact of police work, including suicide;
• Karen Amendola, COO of the Police Foundation, who will discuss pros and cons of 8-, 10-, and 12-hour shifts; and
• Chief Theron Bowman, of the Arlington (TX) PD, who will comment on how police leaders can incorporate research findings into their day-to-day management.
Time will be allotted for questions from the audience.
The program, “Healthy Officers Are Safer Officers,” will be presented online from 2:00-3:30 pm EDT Sept. 18. Although there is no charge, you need to complete a brief form to register and receive instructions for accessing the event. Click here to access that information.
© 2015 Force Science Institute Ltd.