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Electrical Storm: Taser

Human rights groups and the media implicated Tasers in three recent in-custody deaths, but the autopsies told different stories.

June 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

The Entrada Motel

Of course it can be argued that most people who are shot with Tasers tend to be considerably less healthy than the police officers who are zapped in training. Such was the condition of 31-year-old Vincent Del Ostia, who died recently in the custody of the Hollywood (Fla.) Police Department. By all accounts Del Ostia was not a healthy man. He had a long history of drug abuse, and he had a tracheotomy, so it was difficult for him to communicate.

On the afternoon of Jan. 27, Hollywood PD officers were dispatched to the Entrada Motel. The manager had called 911 because a man was out of control in the motel lobby. Police arrived to find Del Ostia raging, violent, and moaning. The officers ordered Del Ostia to stand still, get on his knees, and put his hands behind his back, so that they could cuff him and take him into custody. He failed to comply with any of their commands.

Instead of going hand-to-hand with Del Ostia, the officers brought out the M26. What exactly happened after that is not entirely clear. It's not even 100-percent certain that Del Ostia ever received a burst from the Taser. It's believed that the first shot from the weapon was ineffective because Del Ostia was only struck with one of the probes. (In most cases, a subject must be struck with both probes to complete the circuit and achieve the desired effects.) Del Ostia was eventually subdued either by a second Taser shot or by a swarm of police officers.

Del Ostia was handcuffed and he started gasping for air and lost consciousness. The police then called the Rescue Squad who attempted at no avail to revive him. He died at the hospital.

In April, the Hollywood Medical Examiner's office ruled that Del Ostia died due to cocaine overdose. Hollywood PD spokesperson Lt. Anthony Rode wasn't surprised by the findings. "From the get-go we believed that [Del Ostia's death] was not a result of the M26 Taser," he says. "Hollywood PD has 60 to 70 of these Tasers in use. We've used them multiple times, and we've never had so much as a minor laceration."

Injury Prevention

Tasers have been effectively cleared in all of the recent in-custody deaths involving use of the stun gun. Further, less-lethal weapon experts such as the L.A. Sheriff's Department's Heal say there are no documented cases of a Taser being identified as the primary cause of death in a police or civilian incident. But they add that even if there were a few documented cases of "death by Taser," that shouldn't preclude the use of the device because no less-lethal weapon is perfect and the Taser has a history of preventing injuries to police and suspects.

Consider the following: in April, the Glendale (Ariz.) Police Department executed a high-risk traffic stop of a suspected carjacker in the parking lot of a Circle K convenience store. Officers ordered the subject to the ground three times. He remained standing and spewing obscenities at the police who wondered if he had a weapon.

"He had become what we call an 'active aggressor,'" says Sgt. Stephen Hadley of the Glendale PD. "We knew that if we went up and went hands on with him in a polyester pileup that the fight was going to be on."

A decision was made to deploy an Advanced Taser M26. Accompanied by an officer carrying lethal cover and unseen by the suspect, who was effectively blinded by the takedown lights and the spotlights of the police vehicles, an officer went forward with the Taser and took the shot. The suspect fell to the broken pavement of the convenience store parking lot cutting his chin, and he was taken into custody. His wound required two stitches.

The bright yellow markings on this Taser Intenational Advanced Taser M26 indicate that it is a less-lethal weapon.

Hadley says the outcome could have been much different and much worse for the suspect and the police. "We had a K9 unit with us, and if we had deployed the K9, he definitely would have been hurt. He would have had bite marks on him in several places," Hadley explains.

The Modular Taser

Taser Technologies Inc. has developed a new concept in police Taser weapons, a compact modular Taser that can be customized for different applications and allows for upgrades. It is expected to offer an output of 26 watts.

Company officials say the patent-pending design is the result of extensive user research, which indicated police wanted a weapon that could be adapted to meet a variety of needs. A selection of firing modules can be interchanged with the base, which holds the batteries and circuitry. The modules include a compact Taser pistol that reportedly fits in many standard holsters, a two-shot model, a 15-foot version, a long range 21-foot version, and a configuration that does not look like a firearm. All configurations are expected to incorporate Tasertron's patented dual laser sighting system, which shows the path of both probes before the weapon is fired.

The new Taser Technologies system, which is scheduled to be available in the second half of this year, is designed to be about 40-percent smaller than competitive models and feel and sight like a semi-auto sidearm. "One of our primary goals with this new design is to give officers a Taser they feel comfortable and confident using," says Barnet Resnick, CEO of Taser Technologies.

Taser International’s Advanced Taser M26 packs 26 watts of power. When the trigger is pulled, a compressed nitrogen cartridge fires the probes up to 21 feet.

Tasers on Stun

Tasers have a nearly 30-year history of use in police applications, but they remain one of the most misunderstood tools in the law enforcement arsenal. To the general public and to less-informed members of the media, Tasers are exotic weapons that evoke all sorts of fanciful references to "Star Trek" phasers and to laser beams.

But the only thing Tasers have in common with phasers is that they are intended to stun not kill, like Capt. Kirk's sidearm on its most benign

The Taser also has no relationship to the laser. The acronym T.A.S.E.R. was coined by the weapon's inventor NASA engineer Jack Cover, and it stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle. Tom Swift was a boy adventurer and inventor-sort of a cross between Jonny Quest and Jimmy Neutron-in a series of early 20th century books by Victor Appleton. In the books, his weapon of choice was a stun gun called "The Electric Rifle."

Cover's Taser is an electrical stun gun that pulses 10 to 15 cycles per second of low-amperage power propelled by 50,000 volts through its target. The effect is described by Taser manufacturers as electro-muscular disruption. In other words, a person hit by a Taser is supposed to lose control of his or her muscles and fall to the ground in a heap.

Perhaps the best description of what it's like to be "tasered" comes from noted police less-lethal weapon expert Capt. Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "It doesn't fit anything you've ever experienced before," says Heal, who was zapped in 1999 by a 26-watt model. "It's kind of like some huge giant has got a hold of you, and he's just shaking you back and forth eight to 15 times per second. And then when he's done, he just leaves you and walks off."

Tasers vs. Batons

Some law enforcement agencies have placed the Taser so low on the use-of-force ladder that it contends not with other less lethals like bean bag munitions and OC spray but with traditional strike weapons such as batons and asps.

"We advocate using the Taser before the baton [in many cases]," says Lt. Anthony Rode, public affairs officer of the Hollywood (Fla.) Police Department. "A Taser's going to knock you on your butt, but you're going to get back up. And you won't have a broken collarbone or a broken knee. So we prefer to use it before the baton."

"You have to look at the situation and see which [tool] is more applicable," adds Sgt. Rick Guilbault of the Sacramento (Calif.) Police Department. Every officer, sergeant, and lieutenant in the Sacramento PD has been issued an Advanced Taser M26, but the department has fairly strict guidelines governing their use, many of which don't apply to OC spray. "We don't use [the Taser] on handcuffed suspects, anyone in the back of a squad car, or [people practicing] passive resistance," says Guilbault.

Less-lethal weapons expert Capt. Sid Heal of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department doesn't advocate the use of Tasers before batons, but he also doesn't believe they should be placed too high on the use-of-force ladder either.

"One of our biggest mistakes with some other less-lethal weapons was placing them too high on the [use-of-force] spectrum," Heal says. "Tasers I would place at the same level as OC for the simple reason that there are no lasting aftereffects. The only lasting effect is the darts. If it wasn't for them, I'd put the Taser lower than OC."

Thumbscrews and Tasers

Human rights groups like Amnesty International have argued that even if Tasers are not dangerous when used as intended, they may be misused as torture devices by authorities.

There is no love lost between the two manufacturers of Tasers, Taser Technologies (Tasertron) and Taser International, but on this one point, at least, they agree. They are bewildered as to why Amnesty, the ACLU, and other human rights organizations have so vehemently attacked a less-lethal weapon.

"I've written letters to Amnesty International, and they never respond," says Barnet Resnick, CEO of Taser Technologies. "Here I am trying to manufacture security products that save lives. I don't deserve this. The Tasertron Taser has been used 50,000 times, and I feel good about that. [Tasertron devices] have saved a lot of officers and suspects from being injured."

Taser International's Tuttle also bristles at the suggestion that a Taser is a torture device. "We have asked Amnesty to provide us with any details involving a specific incident of a Taser International product being used in torture, and we have yet to be provided with any," he says.

Amnesty responded too late to requests for participation in this story. The organization did, however, send a comment from its spokesperson Alistair Hodgett. The comment doesn't cite specific examples of Tasers being used in torture but contends that the export of Tasers to certain political regimes is in effect "arming torturers."

The Amnesty report lumps Tasers with stun guns and stun belts, and makes fanciful claims about Tasers that don't hold up to scrutiny. For example, Amnesty quotes marketing claims of a stun belt manufacturer that say its products can cause prisoners to urinate or defecate on themselves and applies them to Tasers. There is no evidence that Tasers have this effect.

"I've never seen that happen," says Tuttle emphatically. "We have a database of 7,000 volunteers. It didn't happen to them. And we have 1,600 field reports, and it hasn't happened there either."

Then there are the probes, which Amnesty says are not easily removed from the human body without surgery.

Sgt. Ed Buns heads the training division of the Hamilton PD, and he supervised the department's training with the Advanced Taser M26. While most departments train their officers by attaching the Taser probes to their clothing (the energy can penetrate 2 inches of material) and pulling the trigger, Buns says some Hamilton PD officers insisted on being shot with the probes. "It took nothing to remove them," he says. "You just make a 'V' with your fingers on both sides of the probe and pop it out."

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