TASER International released a training advisory earlier this month that recommended officers avoid shooting suspects in the chests, if possible.
The Oct. 12 advisory, in the hands of critics, became controversial. TASER critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International argued that language in the company's training material is an admission that its electronic control devices (ECD) can cause cardiac arrest.
TASER CEO Rick Smith says he's surprised by the uproar, which was caused by an article in the Arizona Republic, and that the targeting model wasn't changed because the company sees greater risk of cardiac events from chest shots.
"Would I take a hit in the chest with a TASER?" Smith asks. "Absolutely, all day long. I believe absolutely in its safety."
Smith says the new targeting guidelines were established for two reasons — to make application of TASER weapons more consistent and effective and to help law enforcement agencies defend against liability claims.
TASER is now recommending that officers aim lower center mass to put one probe above the belt line and one below. Smith says one of the reasons that the target zone was moved down was to make aiming for its pistols and its new XREP (eXtended Range Electronic Projectile) shotgun-fired impact round consistent.
"One of the concerns voiced by our training folks was that the targeting models could get confusing for the user if we changed them for each TASER product," he explains.
One benefit of the new target zone, according to Smith, is that the TASER's neuromuscular effect will be more effective lower center mass than it is across the chest.
"There's not a lot of muscle around the sternum," he explains. "There have even been instances where people shot with TASERs in the chest have experienced so little effect that they have been able to remove the darts. So for four or five years now, we have been training our users to lower their point of aim."
But Smith does admit that one of the primary reasons for the change in targeting is to give law enforcement agencies and TASER International itself a stronger defense in liability cases stemming from the deaths of persons shot with TASERs.
"Several hundred people die each year in police custody, and the majority of them are not hit by TASERs. But we tend to hear about the ones involving TASER strikes," Smith says. "If that person collapses relatively quickly and you've got a strike to the chest, then that puts us in a position of trying to convince a jury that the TASER did not play a role. If the probes are not on the chest, it takes away that argument from the plaintiffs."
In the past, TASER has contended that the amount of current (in milliamps) shot into a subject's body by its ECDs cannot affect heart rhythm. But Smith now says the company has come to the conclusion that its research cannot account for all possible variables.
"We cannot prove that the TASER would not have an adverse effect on the one-in-a-million person who cannot be replicated in the lab," Smith explains. "We can't test on every possible human condition, particularly the ones that involve toxic doses of drugs of unknown origin. Even if we could do the testing, we can't replicate the chemical compositions of street drugs made in bathtubs."
TASER officially states that the preferred targeting advice does not prohibit officers from shooting suspects in the chest when they have no other choice or during a fast-developing violent confrontation. "In no way are we saying chest shots are dangerous," Smith stresses. "We've been on the market for 10 years and have hundreds of thousands of chest hits and an extraordinary safety record."
Smith adds that TASER will still stand by officers who shoot subjects in the chest and end up in a court of law facing liability. "We will be there with the same vigor that we have always had in these cases and with all the scientific studies that help validate that TASER does not affect the human heart," he says.
Still, Smith says agencies will be better off if they don't shoot subjects in the chest. "Explaining to a civil jury that a TASER shot across the chest did not have an effect is a very high hill to climb," he explains.
And Smith admits that the new targeting guidelines are also a response to Canada's Braidwood Inquiry. The two-phase inquiry conducted by retired judge Thomas R. Braidwood examined TASER safety in light of the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski who died in Vancouver International Airport after being shocked multiple times with a TASER. The Phase One report of the Braidwood Inquiry was submitted to the British Columbia legislature in July, and it concluded that TASER can kill by causing cardiac rhythm irregularities. TASER has appealed the finding arguing that the inquiry was selective, biased, and not supported by science.
Still, because of the Braidwood finding, Smith worries that if agencies and TASER International did not respond to its findings by lowering the preferred target zone that they would open themselves up to punitive damages in any judgment involving a TASER chest shot.
"If we hadn't done this, the plaintiffs would argue that TASER and law enforcement had intentionally ignored the findings of Braidwood," he says. "By making these adjustments to policy, we can say: 'We don't agree with Braidwood's findings, but here's what we've done to further minimize the risk."
Smith says he understands that officers may worry that TASER's preferred targeting guideline could serve as ammo to be used by plaintiffs in liability suits. "There will be plaintiffs who attempt to use our warnings to argue causality," he says. "But there's a pretty strong precedent in case law that warnings are not admissions of causality."
And Smith believes the targeting guideline will ultimately benefit both agencies and officers. "If a subject should die after a TASER strike, the officer involved will be glad that he or she hit the subject in the lower diaphragm. Doing so will take the arrows out of the quivers of people who shoot them at law enforcement."