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July 17, 2005 - Associated Press (US)

Tasers Can Be Deadly

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - En route to his Midland home after visiting his sister in Arkansas, architect Eric Hammock seemed fine as he called his wife while passing through North Texas.

But a few hours later, he was dead.

Fort Worth police say Hammock trespassed onto a company's private property and after a chase with an off-duty officer guarding the property, he got out of his car and tried to hit the officer. The officer then shocked the 43-year-old with a Taser gun and placed him in handcuffs; Hammock struggled to breathe and died an hour later, police say.

The Tarrant County medical examiner said Hammock's April death was from cocaine intoxication but that the Taser played a role. Hammock was shocked between three and six times.

"They overdid it," said Kathi Hammock, his wife of 18 years who is suing the gun's manufacturer, Arizona-based Taser International. "I don't care what he did. He didn't deserve the death penalty."

In the past nine months, at least six people in Texas - including three in Fort Worth - have died after authorities shocked them with a Taser gun. Just last week in the Dallas suburb of Euless, a 17-year-old died two days after being shocked three times with a Taser. Police say he was high on drugs and violent.

National statistics on Taser-related deaths vary. The American Civil Liberties Union reports more than 130 deaths in the U.S., while Amnesty International reports more than 120 deaths in the U.S. and Canada - both figures since June 2001. The groups want Taser use suspended until studies are done on how the device affects people on drugs or with heart conditions.

Taser International, the primary manufacturer of stun guns, did not return several calls seeking comment for this story. The company said in a May interview with The Associated Press that its product is safe, based on independent studies, and in only about 10 percent of deaths cited by Amnesty International did medical examiners list Tasers as a contributing factor. The company also contends Tasers have saved more than 6,000 lives - suspects who otherwise might have been fatally shot by police.

The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona attorney general have said they are examining Taser's safety claims. Amnesty International and the ACLU say studies cited by the company were done on healthy people and only found no significant heart effects immediately after a shock. In one study, Taser's top medical officer was a consultant.

A Taser shoots two streams of electricity that deliver a 50,000-volt jolt for 5 seconds, temporarily immobilizing a person by over-stimulating the nervous system and causing muscles to lock up. Officers can use the device from 15-35 feet away from a suspect.

A Taser also can be used like cattle prods, affecting only the muscles in the area where it touches someone's skin. However, because a Taser is not a firearm, it is not regulated by the government.

About 100,000 people own a Taser, and about 7,300 law enforcement agencies and military installations worldwide use the stun guns, according to the company.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police says Tasers are effective if used properly but that more studies are needed.

The group's Taser policy urges officers to use it only to subdue suspects who are violent or about to injure someone; not to use it on a handcuffed person unless he is "overtly assaultive"; to use it the least number of times; and to seek medical attention for anyone who has been shocked.

"We're not saying pull them off the streets, by any means," said Albert Arena, a project manager for the 20,000-member association based in Alexandria, Va. "You want to have an option where you don't have to kill somebody to subdue them. In the right situation, it's the appropriate tool."

In Atlanta in May, a murder suspect perched atop an 18-story crane for two days was brought down safely after being shocked with a Taser. Earlier this year a Miami-Dade grand jury recommended that police use Tasers more often as an alternative to guns during a crisis.

But some law enforcement agencies have suspended Taser use because of concerns. Last week the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., ordered local authorities to stop using the devices after the death of an inmate. He was found dead in his jail cell more than 12 hours after corrections officers used the electric stun gun to subdue him.

The Fort Worth Police Department would not say whether it was reviewing its Taser policy or discuss any of the deaths in which its officers and Tasers were involved, Lt. Dean Sullivan said.

Nizam Peerwani, the medical examiner, said he plans to meet with Fort Worth police soon to discuss his findings. He said people who take stimulant drugs, have heart conditions or are highly agitated because of psychological problems are already more likely to die from heart problems - so a Taser's effect on these people should be carefully considered.

Many people, like Trevor Goodchild, 22, survive Taser shocks, but suffer some injuries.

In February, Goodchild was playing his guitar on Austin's Sixth Street, a well-known strip known for its live music clubs, when several police officers approached him and said he needed a permit or would be jailed. When he asked which law he had broken, they grabbed his guitar and slammed him to the ground, splitting open his cheek, he said.

Goodchild, who is white, said he never cursed or resisted arrest, but yelled "Rodney King!" - referring to the black motorist beaten by Los Angeles officers in 1991. Austin officers then shocked Goodchild with a Taser at least seven times, plus two times after he was handcuffed, he said. His back and left arm were covered with up to 20 bloody burn holes the size of the end of a pencil, he said.

Austin police said they didn't know how many times Goodchild was shocked but that he fought with them before the stun gun was used. Goodchild was sentenced to several hours of community service after being convicted of blocking a sidewalk; his resisting arrest case is pending.

"I didn't do anything to provoke this," Goodchild said. "It's the most profound pain I've ever felt in my life. It's complete submission. You can't move. You can't even blink."

How Tasers work, according to officials at Arizona-based Taser International:

A Taser temporarily immobilizes a person by using pulsing electricity to over-stimulate the nervous system, which locks up muscles while the current is flowing.

The guns shoot two fishhook-like electric darts about 25 feet. Each time the trigger is pulled, the darts deliver a 50,000-volt jolt for 5 full seconds. The triggers can be activated as many times as needed for the life of the gun's battery.

Following each 5-second jolt, people who are shocked generally regain all muscle control.

Tasers can also be used like cattle prods, but the effect is more isolated and less painful.

By the Numbers:

  • - Tasers emit 50,000 volts of electricity, or 0.36 joule per second. By comparison, a defibrillator, which shocks the heart back into a normal rhythm, emits 200 to 400 joules per second.
  • - 7,300 law enforcement agencies and military installations around the world use Tasers.
  • - 130,000 Taser guns are being used by law enforcement in the United States.
  • - An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people have been shocked by Tasers during law enforcement confrontations since the device hit the market in 1998.
  • - 100,000 civilians own a Taser.

©2005 Associated Press.

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