Police-caused Taser Deaths on the Rise in US
November 28, 2015
Cheryl W. Thompson and Mark Berman / The Washington Post
Tasers are in the arsenals of more than 17,000 US law enforcement agencies and they are used more than 900 times a day. The manufacturer, Taser International (which made more than $164 million on taser sales in 2014) claims the weapons have prevented death or serious injury more than 135,000 times between 2000 and 2014. But an independent survey reveals police using tasers have killed at least 48 people in the US since January -- about one death a week.
Police-caused Taser Deaths on the Rise: Improper Techniques, Increased Risks
Deaths have raised questions about the risk of excessive or improper deployment of Tasers
Cheryl W. Thompson and Mark Berman / The Washington Post
NOTE: At least 48 people have died in the United States since January -- about one death a week -- in incidents in which police used Tasers, according to a Washington Post examination of police, court and autopsy records. The Post is compiling a database of all fatal shootings nationwide by officers in the line of duty in 2015, available at wapo.st/police-shootings.
(November 26, 2015) -- Mathew Ajibade had been acting strangely shortly before Savannah, Ga., police officers arrested him on suspicion of hitting his girlfriend outside a convenience store last New Year's Day.
Officers said he was combative, so after booking the 21-year-old Wells Fargo bank employee into the Chatham County Detention Center, a sheriff's deputy Tasered Ajibade's abdominal area after he was handcuffed with his ankles bound. They left him in an isolation cell and didn't check on him for at least 90 minutes, in violation of department policy. When they did, he was dead.
Ajibade is one of at least 48 people who have died in the United States since January -- about one death a week -- in incidents in which police used Tasers, according to a Washington Post examination of scores of police, court and autopsy records.
The link between the use of Tasers and the 48 deaths this year is unclear. At least one of the deaths occurred when an incapacitated person fell and hit his head. Other factors mentioned among the causes of death were excited delirium, methamphetamine or PCP intoxication, hypertensive heart disease, coronary artery disease, and cocaine toxicity. Twelve of the 26 cases in which The Post was able to obtain autopsy reports or cause-of-death information mentioned a Taser along with other factors.
More than half of the 48 suffered from mental illness or had illegal drugs in their system at the time. At least 10 were Tasered while handcuffed or shackled. Only one was female. Nearly 55 percent of the people who died were minorities. The Ajibade case was the only one that resulted in officers being indicted.
Deaths after Taser usage by police are relatively rare, accounting for a fraction of the people who die during or after encounters with officers, according to a comprehensive study by the National Institute of Justice. Research shows that when used correctly, the devices are generally safe and prevent injuries to both police officers and civilians. But when Tasers are used excessively or if officers don't follow department policy or product guidelines, the risk of injury or death can increase, according to company product warnings and police experts.
Tasers are best known for their ability to incapacitate individuals while used in "probe mode," when they fire two barbs that deliver an electric current along wires, causing the muscles to lock up. When placed against a person's body in "drive stun" mode, as happened in the Ajibade case, Tasers do not incapacitate but cause localized pain that can be used to control dangerous individuals. Pain compliance, police call it.
At least nine of the 48 cases this year involved individuals who were Tasered in the drive-stun mode.
Taser International has issued product warnings to law enforcement about drive-stunning, noting the need for caution and restraint when using the technique on people with mental illnesses.
"Drive-stun use may not be effective on emotionally disturbed persons or others who may not respond to pain due to a mind-body disconnect," the company warned in 2013. "Avoid using repeated drive-stuns on such individuals if compliance is not achieved."
Chatham County Sheriff's Office policy prohibits deputies from drive-stunning someone who is restrained, according to Sheriff Al St. Lawrence, who said he fired or forced out 16 people after the Ajibade incident.
The deputy who drive-stunned Ajibade, Jason Kenny, was indicted in June along with another deputy and a nurse. Kenny was acquitted last month of manslaughter and assault, but found guilty of cruelty to an inmate by using excessive force. The other deputy was convicted of public records fraud and perjury, and the nurse was convicted of making a false statement to a state agent. Kenny was sentenced to one month in jail and three years' probation. Neither Kenny nor his attorney, Willie Yancey Jr., returned several phone calls seeking comment.
"There was a culture from top to bottom that they thought they could use the Taser however they wanted," St. Lawrence said in September in an interview with The Post. "Deputies were using it as punishment, and you can't use it as a form of punishment. There was just too much use."
St. Lawrence, 81, passed away on Tuesday after a year-long battle with cancer.
Ajibade, who grew up in Prince George's County, Md., was bipolar, his family said.
"If someone is restrained and tased repeatedly, that, in my mind, is torture," said Chris Oladapo, 27, Ajibade's cousin who persuaded him to move to Savannah in 2012.
An ongoing debate continues across the country over how police use force -- particularly deadly force -- in the wake of high-profile incidents in cities from coast to coast. Tasers, though, exist as a tool intended to move away from resorting to things such as chokeholds, batons and pepper spray, which was "an archaic way of doing business," said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International.
"We're proud that we've given a tool to the toolbox that provides a safer alternative than using a baton strike that beats somebody senseless," Tuttle said. "It's better than spraying an acid in someone's eyes that's going to make them suffer and burn for 45 minutes, even after they've complied, versus what we call an elegant, more humane and accountable solution."
Inspired by Science Fiction
Jack Cover, the physicist who invented the Taser, said the name came from "Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle," a science-fiction novel he read growing up. Cover, who died in 2009, told The Post in 1976 that he was fascinated by the book's fictional weapon, which was capable of "stunning people with blue balls of electricity."
He first began thinking about the device during the 1968 Watts riots. Not long after, he read a Los Angeles Times article "about a man who had harmlessly gotten stuck on an electric cattle fence for three hours," he said. "The current immobilized his muscles, and I thought, 'Why not convert that into a hand item?' "
Tasers went on sale in 1975 and were classified as firearms. They drew national attention in 1991 when Los Angeles police were videotaped beating Rodney King and shocking him with a Taser that failed to subdue him.
The modern Taser is manufactured by Taser International, a publicly traded company founded in 1993 with sales that exceeded $164 million last year. The devices are in the arsenals of more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. Tasers are used more than 900 times a day and have prevented death or serious injury more than 135,000 times between 2000 and 2014, the company said.
In "probe mode," incapacitation occurs when the electricity causes muscles to contract in a cycle that last five seconds, which can be extended if the trigger is held back or pulled again.
"It takes all of your muscles away and you fall," said Sgt. Garland Prince, who conducts Taser training for the 77-member Wichita County Sheriff's Office in Texas and "took a hit during training" to see what it felt like.
In the "drive-stun" mode, the Taser provides a painful shock over a small area.
"It does not incapacitate someone," said Greg Meyer, a retired Los Angeles Police Department captain and nationally known use-of-force expert. "It actually causes them to act out with greater resistance because of the pain. The person will fight you more."
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