Within days of Taser International going on defensive due to one death, another 3 men die

Summary:In case you missed my coverage of the consumer-oriented Tasers that were on display at CES earlier this year, you can see our video showing how a hot pink-colored consumer-oriented taser (pictured left) was used to immobilize a CES-showgoer. The consumer-oriented model isn't as robust as the model used by law enforcement agencies (for example, the consumer version can't work at the same distances).

In case you missed my coverage of the consumer-oriented Tasers that were on display at CES earlier this year, you can see our video showing how a hot pink-colored consumer-oriented taser (pictured left) was used to immobilize a CES-showgoer. The consumer-oriented model isn't as robust as the model used by law enforcement agencies (for example, the consumer version can't work at the same distances). Now that two men have died in unrelated incidents where a taser was used comes the question as to whether the devices merit another look in terms of their availability to ordinary consumers (let alone law enforcement officials).

It probably couldn't have come at a worse time for Taser International. Hardly two days had passed since the company went on the defensive to say that the mid-October death of 40 year-old Pole Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport was unrelated to his being tasered (it was caught on video) by authorities when, yesterday, a Maryland man died shortly after being tasered as well. According to one story I found, more than 200 people have died in the last five years after having been Tasered.

According to a press release issued by Taser International on November 16th:

This tragic incident appears to follow the pattern of many in-custody deaths or deaths following a confrontation with police. Historically, medical science and forensic analysis has shown that these deaths are attributable to other factors and not the low-energy electrical discharge of the TASER(r). Specifically in Canada, while previous incidents were widely reported in the media as 'TASER deaths,' the role of the TASER device has been cleared in every case to date -- including the widely publicized Bagnell in-custody death in Vancouver where the TASER device was cleared by an inquest jury.

Cardiac arrest caused by electrical current is immediate. The video of the incident at the Vancouver airport indicates that the subject was continuing to fight well after the TASER application. This continuing struggle could not be possible if the subject died as a result of the TASER device electrical current causing cardiac arrest. His continuing struggle is proof that the TASER device was not the cause of his death. Further, the video clearly shows symptoms of excited delirium, a potentially fatal condition marked by symptoms of exhaustion and mania such as heavy breathing, profuse sweating, confusion, disorientation and violence toward inanimate objects.

Despite Taser International's insistence on the safety and efficacy of its devices versus lethal alternatives, the Department of Justice launched an inquiry in 2006 as the number of post-Tasering deaths reached statistical significance. So far, one DOJ-commissioned study has concluded that, of the 962 taser incidents it tracked, only two involved deaths, neither of which could be directly attributed to Taser deployment. Why that study didn't focus specifically on the mounting number of incidents where death was involved, I have no idea (that's what I would have focused on). However, now, with two deaths within a month's time, Tasers will no doubt get even more scrutiny.

Within 48 hours of issuing its defensive press release this past Friday, Taser International will once again find itself in the spolight. According to The Register:

A 20-year-old man died yesterday in Frederick City, Maryland, after being tasered by a police deputy....The unnamed deputy responded to reports of the altercation shortly before 5am, "found four people fighting outside and deployed a Taser"...the man "fell on the ground unconscious and was given first aid on the scene, then taken to Frederick Memorial Hospital where he was later pronounced dead"....the friend said the deputy "struck Gray with a Taser and administered multiple shocks for several seconds, even though Gray had said, 'I'm on the ground'."

(see the update below... in unrelated incidents, two other men died over the weekend after being tasered as well) While no video is available for this particular incident, at the very least both incidents seem to raise questions about the number of shocks required to subdue suspects. In the video incident from Canada, one officer can be heard telling another to "hit" DziekanskiDziekanski was already down on the ground. While that doesn't appear to be the case with the 20 year-old Maryland man, the witness' report that he received additional shocks after having already fallen to the ground is also consistent with the way the Taser is designed to work. According to Taser's Web site, the company's Digital Pulse Control technology found in its law enforcement units "automatically delivers a 5-second burst for each pull of the trigger."

I clearly have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to this sort of technology. But just like with guns and other lethal weapons, I can't help but wonder if "operator error" can make the difference between life and death. The one question I'm left asking after hearing about these latest two incidents was whether or not the additional shocks could have been the difference between life and death. I'm sure Taser International will say no. But, after filming the way the consumer unit incapacitated a volunteer show goer at CES (and that was in a highly controlled situation), it's not hard to imagine a tense situation where a Taser operator's adrenalin is pumping and whoever s/he is trying to subdue ends up getting more shocks than is necessary.

Update: Since first publishing this post, it has come to my attention that two other men have died over the last couple of days after being Tasered. One of these was a 20 year-old in Raton, New Mexico, the other in Jacksonville, Florida.

Topics: CES

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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