March 7, 2018 2:30 PM Subscribe
Inside Taser, The Weapon That Transformed Policing
Part I: The Toll
Part II: The Warnings
Part I: The Toll
In the most detailed study ever of fatalities and litigation involving police use of stun guns, Reuters finds more than 150 autopsy reports citing Tasers as a cause or contributor to deaths across America. Behind the fatalities is a sobering reality: Many who die are among society’s vulnerable – unarmed, in psychological distress and seeking help.
Part II: The Warnings
Haas fired his stun gun. One electrified dart hit below Howard’s lower left chest, the other near his waist. The 18-year-old collapsed, unconscious, and was pronounced dead at the hospital; the coroner ruled the cause “unknown.”Part III: The Experts
“I did not in my wildest dreams expect this kid to die,” Haas, a certified Taser instructor, told Reuters.
Howard’s family sued Haas in his official capacity as a member of the university’s police force, contending he did not heed warnings from the weapon’s manufacturer, Taser International Inc, to avoid chest shots because they can pose cardiac risks. The university settled for $2 million; Taser faced no litigation.
As Tasers have become a common weapon in U.S. policing, so too have legal cases like Everette Howard’s. And as the human toll mounts, the litigation toll is increasingly borne by the public.
At least 442 wrongful death suits have been filed over fatalities that followed the use of a Taser, almost all since the stun guns began gaining widespread popularity with police in the early 2000s, Reuters found in a nationwide review of legal filings. Police departments and the municipalities they represent have faced 435 of these suits. The manufacturer was a defendant in 128 of them.
For more than a decade, Taser has defended its signature weapon by leveraging close ties with police and other professionals, court records show. It has spent millions of dollars commissioning research on its weapons, much of it backing the company’s contention that its stun guns are blameless in deaths or injuries. It regularly hires medical and scientific experts who vouch for the safety of the electroshock devices in court or in published studies. And it cultivates ties with medical examiners, the professionals who decide whether or not a Taser shock is to blame in a fatality.Part IV: The Science
The result is a thicket of intersecting relationships among police, coroners and a wide network of scientists the company taps, a Reuters examination of hundreds of wrongful death lawsuits and interviews with lawyers for both plaintiffs and police found.
Smith had been right about what police wanted. Sales exploded. Taser International was made. Today, officers around the world and on most U.S. police forces holster the weapon, which Taser says is more akin to a baton than a gun.Part V: The X26
But his safety assertions were overstated and rested on science that didn’t rise to the FDA rigor he promised, a Reuters examination of company documents, medical literature and court records found. That science began with one pig, five dogs and some willing cops.
Taser’s human subjects were prospective buyers. At sales demonstrations, police officers volunteered – sometimes for a chance at free beer – to be shocked with the weapon. Those shocks were a fraction as long as what a single Taser trigger squeeze delivers in the field. And the jolts came from darts typically taped to feet, thighs, hips and other places far from the heart.
Researchers observed and chronicled the reactions of the volunteers but took no cardiograms or any other physiological measurements from the subjects. Taser’s early animal and human tests didn’t use control groups – subjects who received no shock or a smaller jolt, for example, and could be used as a benchmark. And CEO Smith’s conclusion that Tasers are “unequivocally” safe was unusual: Scientists typically highlight the limits of their research.
The X26, Taser’s most powerful stun gun, was removed from the sales lineup in 2014. Behind the phase-out, a truth: The popular weapon posed a higher cardiac risk than other models.Part VI: The Prisoners
Corporal Matthew Stice pointed his Taser at Martini Smith’s bare chest.
Smith was 20 years old, pregnant and stripped nearly naked, standing in a cell in the Franklin County jail in Columbus, Ohio. She had been detained on charges of stabbing a boyfriend she’d accused of beating her. Stice and a deputy had ordered her to disrobe, take off all jewelry and don a prison gown. But she hadn’t been able to obey one command – remove the silver stud from her tongue.
“Take the tongue ring out,” Deputy Shawnda Arnold said. Smith continued struggling to unscrew the ring, inserting fingers from both hands into her mouth. No luck. Her fingers were numb, she protested: She had been cuffed for six hours with her hands behind her back.
“I will Tase you,” Stice said. The ring was slippery, Smith said, asking for a paper towel. The deputies refused. “I just want to go to sleep,” Smith cried.
Stice warned her again, then fired. The Taser’s electrified darts struck Smith’s chest; she collapsed against the concrete wall and slid to the floor, gasping, arms over her breasts.
“Why did you Tase me?” she moaned. “I wasn’t harming nobody. I can’t just take it out.”
Five days later, Smith had a miscarriage.
“It stays with me like it was yesterday,” Smith said of the Taser’s pain and the memory of her loss of the child. The charges against her in the domestic violence case were dismissed.
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