San Francisco Chronicle & American Journal of Cardiology – 2009-01-24 22:02:13
UCSF Study Raises Doubts about Stun Gun Safety
Elizabeth Fernandez / San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO (January 24, 2009) — The number of in-custody sudden deaths rose dramatically during the first year California law enforcement agencies began using stun guns, raising questions about the safety of the devices, according to a new study at UCSF.
The electronic weapons are intended to be a nonlethal alternative to the gun.
“Tasers are not as safe as thought,” said Dr. Byron Lee, one of the cardiologists involved in studying the death rate related to Tasers, the most widely used stun gun. “And if they are used, they should be used with caution.”
The researchers analyzed sudden death data from 50 law enforcement agencies in the state that use Tasers. They compared the death rate pre- and post-Taser deployment – analyzing data for five years before each agency began using Tasers and five years afterward.
They found a sixfold increase in sudden deaths during the first year of Taser use – amounting to nearly 6 deaths per 100,000 arrests.
“I didn’t expect what we found,” said Lee. “I thought we would find no difference in the rate of sudden death. But there was a rather dramatic rise.”
After the first year, the rate of sudden deaths dropped down to nearly pre-Taser levels, suggesting that police and others in law enforcement altered the way they were using the devices to make them less lethal.
“Sudden deaths are extremely rare events, but it is important to look into why these events happen and whether law enforcement agencies are fully informed of the real-world risks,” Lee said.
California does not have a statewide training standard for stun guns, which have been used in the state for decades.
“The manufacturer provides introductory training, then law enforcement agencies do supplemental training,” said Robert Stresak, a spokesman for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which sets minimum training standards. “It’s on an agency by agency basis. The content of the course could vary widely as to what is taught.”
Tasers, known as “conducted energy” devices, send out high-frequency pulses which can cause a very rapid, dangerous heart rhythm, said senior author Dr. Zian H. Tseng, an assistant clinical professor in cardiology.
“Maybe a simple change of technique is what is necessary,” he said. “The longer you hold the trigger, the higher the danger to the heart. … The fewer pulses the better.”
San Francisco, which does not use the devices, was not part of the study. Tseng declined to give specifics about local jurisdictions involved in the research but said that “Oakland did not give us data. San Jose did give us data.”
Two years ago, Amnesty International reported 156 stun gun-related deaths of people in the United States during the previous five years.
The weapons have generated controversy, but a report last year which suggested a sweeping slate of reforms to the San Francisco Police Department said that allowing the use of Tasers may reduce injuries to officers and suspects.
Tasers are used by more than 12,000 law enforcement, military and correctional agencies in the U.S. and abroad, said UCSF’s Lee.
More intensive research is needed, particularly within law enforcement agencies that show a high sudden death rate, said Samuel Walker, one of the nation’s top police practices experts.
“We need good studies on the physiological impacts,” said Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “I’d want to know more about the deaths, interview the officers to find out if they self-corrected.”
The study’s findings were published online this week by the American Journal of Cardiology.
E-mail Elizabeth Fernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.
Relation of Taser (Electrical Stun Gun) Deployment to Increase in In-Custody Sudden Deaths
American Journal of Cardiology
AUTHORS: Byron K. Lee, MD (a), Eric Vittinghoff, PhD (c), Dean Whiteman, BS (a), Minna Parka, Linda L. Lau, BS (b), Zian H. Tseng, MD (a), Corresponding Author
Received 3 October 2008; received in revised form 18 November 2008; accepted 18 November 2008. published online 22 January 2009.
(January 22, 2009) — Despite controversy concerning their safety, use of electrical stun guns (Tasers) by law enforcement agencies is increasing. We examined the effect of Taser deployment on rates of (1) in-custody sudden deaths in the absence of lethal force, (2) lethal force (firearm) deaths, and (3) officer injuries (OIs) requiring emergency room visits.
Under the Public Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act, 126 police and sheriff departments from California cities were mailed surveys requesting rates of each of the outcomes of interest for each of the 5 years preceding Taser deployment through the 5 years after deployment.
To control for population size and crime rates, we used total annual arrests per city as reported to the Department of Justice.
Fifty cities provided predeployment and postdeployment data on in-custody sudden death, 21 cities reported firearm deaths, and 4 cities reported OIs.
The rate of in-custody sudden death increased 6.4-fold (95% confidence interval 3.2-12.8, p = 0.006) and the rate of firearm death increased 2.3-fold (95% confidence interval 1.3–4.0, p = 0.003) in the in the first full year after Taser deployment compared with the average rate in the 5 years before deployment. In years 2 to 5 after deployment, rates of the 2 events decreased to predeployment levels. We observed no significant change in the rate of serious OIs after Taser deployment.
In conclusion, although considered by some a safer alternative to firearms, Taser deployment was associated with a substantial increase in in-custody sudden deaths in the early deployment period, with no decrease in firearm deaths or serious OIs.
(a) Section of Cardiac Electrophysiology, Division of Cardiology, University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, San Francisco, California
(b) Loyola University Chicago, School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois
(c) Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of California, San Francisco, California
Corresponding Author InformationCorresponding author: Tel: 415-476-5706; fax: 415-476-6260
Dr. Tseng is supported by a grant from the National Center for Research Resources, a component of the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Maryland), and National Institutes of Health Roadmap for Medical Research (KL2 RR024130).
© 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.