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Tasers & Deaths: Not A Simple Relationship, Researchers Argue

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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.

MINING MISSING DATA

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.

INCIDENT CHARACTERISTICS

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.

SUSPECT SPECS

“[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.”

CAUSE OF DEATH

“[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.

CHANGES OVER TIME

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.”

CONCLUSION

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.

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