Taser Safety Questions Explored After Death of Hampton Man | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

“Sword-Wielding Man Dies After Being Tasered by Hampton Police” reads a headline in the Dec. 11 Daily Press.

In a truly tragic turn of events, the paper reported, 36-year-old Hatchel Pate Adams III threatened police with a sword after the officers entered Adams’ home and attempted to take him into protective custody so he could undergo psychiatric evaluation. To calm Adams, the police shot him twice with a Taser. The second jolt of electricity appears to have stopped Adams’ heart and lungs, and Adams died despite receiving CPR from police and other emergency personnel.

Taser is a brand name, and different versions of devices that immobilize people by delivering high-voltage, low-amperage electric shocks are available. The company that makes Tasers insists the devices are safe alternatives to guns or physical force. A study by the American Medical Association published in 2008 generally supports that argument, but not every researcher has reached the same conclusion.

Cardiologists from the University of California-San Francisco reported in the March 2009 American Journal of Cardiology that in the first 12 months during which California police wielded Tasers, the number of arrested suspects who died in custody increased 600 percent. The cardiologists traced this spike in suspects’ deaths to use of Tasers.

The Phoenix Business Journal reported this November that Taser’s parent company had won dismissal of 100 product liability lawsuits. Taser users do not enjoy such liability protection, however. Locally, a mentally impaired Norfolk woman received a cash settlement from the city when it was determined that police had employed their Tasers too aggressively while removing the woman from a traffic median in Wards Corner.

Tasers–and all stun guns–are inherently dangerous because they are used intentionally to electrically shock people. The line between immobilizing shock and deadly electrocution can be a fine one, especially if the person receiving the shock has a weak heart or other health problems. Police need to use stun guns sparingly and at the lowest possible effective settings. Even a slight miscalculation of when and how to use the devices can result in a tragedy like the one that occurred last week in Hampton.