Tasers & Deaths: Not A Simple Relationship, Researchers Argue

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A research team that includes members with law enforcement experience has taken the most comprehensive look yet at the circumstances surrounding Taser deployments where suspects end up dying.

The findings “demonstrate the complexity of these incidents,” the researchers report, citing drug use and mental illness, persistent suspect resistance, and a “wide array of force options used by police” as salient factors in many arrest-related deaths (ARDs).

“Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding CEWs [conducted energy weapons] has resulted in these cases being defined by Taser device use…a considerable oversimplification,” the team writes.

To better understand “the hundreds of deaths that occur each year during police-citizen encounters,” law enforcement professionals, academics, and the public need to consider “the totality of circumstances” in fatalities that occur proximate to CEW use and “move beyond the tendency to reduce them to simply ‘Taser cases,’ ” the researchers argue.

Led by Dr. Michael White, a former deputy sheriff who now is associate director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State U., the six-member team includes Dr. Donald Dawes, a SWAT doc, reserve police officer, and ER physician in California, and Dr. Jeffrey Ho, a deputy sheriff, law enforcement medical director, ER physician, and prominent CEW researcher in Minnesota. (Ho is also the medical director for Taser International, Inc.; he and two of his study colleagues are Taser stockholders, as they disclose in the study.)

The group’s 28-page report, “An Incident-Level Profile of Taser Device Deployments in Arrest-Related Deaths,” can be read in full without charge as it was recently published online by the journal Police Quarterly. Click here to go directly to the report.


In their introduction, the researchers point out that despite widely publicized concern over ARDs that have occurred after Taser exposure, there has been no previous broad-based effort to establish “a detailed profile” of these controversial and “polarizing” events. This has left troubling “unanswered questions regarding officer, suspect, and incident-level characteristics of these death cases, as well the extent to which patterns in these characteristics may have changed over time.”

To “enhance our understanding of Taser device use in ARDs” and thus better “inform the discourse” about CEWs, the researchers undertook a thorough “descriptive analysis” of the 392 known Taser-involved ARDs that occurred in the US between 2001-2008. After merging information from print media archives and medical examiner/autopsy reports, they ended up with 213 fatalities about which they had input from both sources.

Each case, including those lacking ME documentation, was parsed for “detailed and accurate information on circumstances surrounding the death,” such as officer and suspect demographics; the suspect’s behavior before, during, and after the incident; the presence of drugs and alcohol in the suspect’s system; mental illness; level of resistance; injury; the number of activations and location of CEW contact; other types of force used; primary and contributing factors in the cause of death; and so on.

Comparing the many variables, the researchers established the following general findings.


Although death occurred in only a tiny fraction of CEW deployments, 280 different agencies in 37 states experienced at least one ARD after the use of a Taser during the eight-year study period, with California (75), Florida (57), Texas (32), and Ohio (20) showing the highest numbers. Nearly half the identified deaths occurred in these four states, with California alone accounting for roughly 20% of the total.

Three of these top states are among the nation’s most populous, have the largest number of sworn officers, experience the greatest volume of violent crime, and are the biggest customers of Taser cartridges and X26 devices, so their disproportionate distribution of ARDs “makes intuitive sense,” the researchers explain. Of the 13 states that had no ARDs, all but two (NJ and MA) had fewer than 3,500 sworn during the study years.

In the majority of ARD cases, multiple officers were at the scene and the suspect was not yet in custody when Tasered. In about a third of the cases (36.5%) there was only one Taser activation, but there were six or more in 10%, with an average of 2.91 activations across all incidents.

Where duration of exposure could be established, it was most often six to 15 seconds. Only rarely did activation total more than 30 seconds. In more than 80% of the time, deployment was via the darts-only mode, and the contact location reported most often (23%) was in the back, buttocks, or legs. The chest was the only contact area documented in 13.6%, with multiple frontal locations recorded in 16.9% of ARDs.

In about one in four ARDs (37.2%), a CEW was the only force used against the suspect. The rest involved other force as well, with officers usually starting with physical measures, OC spray, or handcuffing before resorting to the Taser when lesser measures failed. “[I]n nearly one-fifth of the study cases…police used three or more force options,” the researchers found.


“[T]he vast majority were male and between the ages of 21 and 40…. Though only about 20% of suspects were described as mentally ill, drug and alcohol use was common…,” the researchers write. Among ME reports, “nearly 90% indicated either illicit drugs in the decedent’s body or evidence of chronic drug use.” Most commonly cited were cocaine (about 66% of the cases) and methamphetamine (18%). More than half were “intoxicated or high during the police encounter.”

Most suspects (86%) were unarmed, but “the vast majority were engaged in some form of active resistance against the officer(s) during the encounter.” In about 7% of the cases, this resistance was judged to be “potentially lethal.” Only 10% of subjects were characterized as “passively resisting.” Of suspects who were armed, about half wielded an edged weapon and five brandished a firearm.

Despite Taser application, nearly 60% of suspects continued to resist. This suggests an exceptional commitment to resisting, in sharp contrast with earlier studies of nonfatal cases that show Tasering “stops suspect resistance in 80% to 90% of incidents,” the researchers note.

In ARD cases where resistance did stop, researchers found that the average number of Taser applications was much lower, “officers were much less likely to have to resort to other force,” and suspects were “less likely to be intoxicated.”


“[D]rugs (21.4%), heart-related problems (30.5%), and ExDS [excited delirium syndrome] (23.8%) were cited as the primary cause of death in 75% of the ME reports,” the study says. The Taser was listed as the primary cause in only two cases and as a “contributing factor” in 16.


As part of their investigation, the research team compared findings among three separate time periods (2001-2004, 2005-2006, 2007-2008) and discovered “several notable changes over time.” Among them:

  • “The average number of activations has decreased significantly, from 3.16 in the earlier period to just 2.38 in the later period.”
  • The percentage of incidents where only the Taser is used has declined.
  • The resistance level of suspects has become “increasingly aggressive” and “less passive,” yet the likelihood of resistance continuing after Taser exposure has “dropped substantially, from nearly three-quarters of cases in 2001-2004 to just over half of cases in 2007-2008.”
  • The proportion of death cases involving heart problems has become less common, dropping from 41.2% to 22.2%.

And some things haven’t changed. Notably: “[D]rug use and mental illness have remained consistent features of Taser-proximate ARDs over time.”


The study paints “a clear picture of the complex, prolonged, physical nature” of ARD encounters, the researchers write. These are “complex, dynamic encounters between suspects who [are] actively and aggressively resisting police, and officers who [are] drawing deeply into their arsenal of force options in an attempt to control them.”

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, who was not involved in this research, joins White’s team in calling for more nuanced discussions and scientific investigations of ARDs going forward.

“No single pattern emerges that fits all fatal confrontations,” he says. “Many variables that are not yet fully understood are involved. Those observers who insist on finger-pointing at CEWs as the sole ’cause’ of suspect deaths in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary are distracting from meaningful dialogue about proper policy and practices that relate to this important issue.”

NOTE: The researchers footnote that there were 22 cases where one or more officers Tasered a suspect, then subsequently shot him fatally. These incidents were excluded from the analysis, as were five other cases in which a subject committed suicide or died accidentally after Taser application.

Leave a Reply


  • Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy

Effective date: January 06, 2019

Force Science Institute, Ltd. (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the https://www.forcescience.org/ website (hereinafter referred to as the “Service”).

This page informs you of our policies regarding the collection, use, and disclosure of personal data when you use our Service and the choices you have associated with that data. Our Privacy Policy for Force Science Institute, Ltd. is based on the Privacy Policy Template from Privacy Policies.

We use your data to provide and improve the Service. By using the Service, you agree to the collection and use of information in accordance with this policy. Unless otherwise defined in this Privacy Policy, the terms used in this Privacy Policy have the same meanings as in our Terms and Conditions, accessible from https://www.forcescience.org/

Information Collection And Use

We collect several different types of information for various purposes to provide and improve our Service to you.

Types of Data Collected

Personal Data

While using our Service, we may ask you to provide us with certain personally identifiable information that can be used to contact or identify you (“Personal Data”). Personally identifiable information may include, but is not limited to:

  • Email address
  • First name and last name
  • Phone number
  • Address, State, Province, ZIP/Postal code, City
  • Cookies and Usage Data

Usage Data

We may also collect information on how the Service is accessed and used (“Usage Data”). This Usage Data may include information such as your computer’s Internet Protocol address (e.g. IP address), browser type, browser version, the pages of our Service that you visit, the time and date of your visit, the time spent on those pages, unique device identifiers and other diagnostic data.

Tracking & Cookies Data

We use cookies and similar tracking technologies to track the activity on our Service and hold certain information.

Cookies are files with small amount of data which may include an anonymous unique identifier. Cookies are sent to your browser from a website and stored on your device. Tracking technologies also used are beacons, tags, and scripts to collect and track information and to improve and analyze our Service.

You can instruct your browser to refuse all cookies or to indicate when a cookie is being sent. However, if you do not accept cookies, you may not be able to use some portions of our Service. You can learn more how to manage cookies in the Browser Cookies Guide.

Examples of Cookies we use:

  • Session Cookies. We use Session Cookies to operate our Service.
  • Preference Cookies. We use Preference Cookies to remember your preferences and various settings.
  • Security Cookies. We use Security Cookies for security purposes.

Use of Data

Force Science Institute, Ltd. uses the collected data for various purposes:

  • To provide and maintain the Service
  • To notify you about changes to our Service
  • To allow you to participate in interactive features of our Service when you choose to do so
  • To provide customer care and support
  • To provide analysis or valuable information so that we can improve the Service
  • To monitor the usage of the Service
  • To detect, prevent and address technical issues

Transfer Of Data

Your information, including Personal Data, may be transferred to — and maintained on — computers located outside of your state, province, country or other governmental jurisdiction where the data protection laws may differ than those from your jurisdiction.

If you are located outside United States and choose to provide information to us, please note that we transfer the data, including Personal Data, to United States and process it there.

Your consent to this Privacy Policy followed by your submission of such information represents your agreement to that transfer.

Force Science Institute, Ltd. will take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that your data is treated securely and in accordance with this Privacy Policy and no transfer of your Personal Data will take place to an organization or a country unless there are adequate controls in place including the security of your data and other personal information.

Disclosure Of Data

Legal Requirements

Force Science Institute, Ltd. may disclose your Personal Data in the good faith belief that such action is necessary to:

  • To comply with a legal obligation
  • To protect and defend the rights or property of Force Science Institute, Ltd.
  • To prevent or investigate possible wrongdoing in connection with the Service
  • To protect the personal safety of users of the Service or the public
  • To protect against legal liability

Security Of Data

The security of your data is important to us, but remember that no method of transmission over the Internet, or method of electronic storage is 100% secure. While we strive to use commercially acceptable means to protect your Personal Data, we cannot guarantee its absolute security.

Service Providers

We may employ third party companies and individuals to facilitate our Service (“Service Providers”), to provide the Service on our behalf, to perform Service-related services or to assist us in analyzing how our Service is used.

These third parties have access to your Personal Data only to perform these tasks on our behalf and are obligated not to disclose or use it for any other purpose.


We may use third-party Service Providers to monitor and analyze the use of our Service.

  • Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google uses the data collected to track and monitor the use of our Service. This data is shared with other Google services. Google may use the collected data to contextualize and personalize the ads of its own advertising network.You can opt-out of having made your activity on the Service available to Google Analytics by installing the Google Analytics opt-out browser add-on. The add-on prevents the Google Analytics JavaScript (ga.js, analytics.js, and dc.js) from sharing information with Google Analytics about visits activity.For more information on the privacy practices of Google, please visit the Google Privacy & Terms web page: https://policies.google.com/privacy?hl=en

Links To Other Sites

Our Service may contain links to other sites that are not operated by us. If you click on a third party link, you will be directed to that third party’s site. We strongly advise you to review the Privacy Policy of every site you visit.

We have no control over and assume no responsibility for the content, privacy policies or practices of any third party sites or services.

Children’s Privacy

Our Service does not address anyone under the age of 18 (“Children”).

We do not knowingly collect personally identifiable information from anyone under the age of 18. If you are a parent or guardian and you are aware that your Children has provided us with Personal Data, please contact us. If we become aware that we have collected Personal Data from children without verification of parental consent, we take steps to remove that information from our servers.

Changes To This Privacy Policy

We may update our Privacy Policy from time to time. We will notify you of any changes by posting the new Privacy Policy on this page.

We will let you know via email and/or a prominent notice on our Service, prior to the change becoming effective and update the “effective date” at the top of this Privacy Policy.

You are advised to review this Privacy Policy periodically for any changes. Changes to this Privacy Policy are effective when they are posted on this page.

Contact Us

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, please contact us:

  • By email: support@forcescience.org
  • By visiting this page on our website: https://www.forcescience.org/contact
  • By phone number: 866-683-1944
  • By mail: Force Science Institute, Ltd.