Tasers implicated in dozens of wrongful death lawsuits

by Amy Kingsley

School resource officers patrolling Guilford County schools located outside the municipalities of High Point and Greensboro received a new addition to their tool belt last April: Tasers. But unlike most school supplies, this particular weapon has drawn a great deal of scrutiny.

High Point police, Greensboro police or Guilford County sheriff’s deputies patrol county schools located within each department’s jurisdiction. The Sheriff’s Office started arming their contingent of school resource officers last spring at the tail end of a three-year push to provide Tasers to all of their patrol officers.

Parents and school board members immediately questioned the wisdom of providing Tasers to officers who work with minors. In addition to providing the high school resource officers mandated by law, the sheriff’s department staffs middle schools. While Sheriff BJ Barnes defended the Tasers as simply another tool, parents have raised concerns regarding the safety of the electroshock guns.

“Tasers are intended for use on healthy adults,” said Berkeley Blanks, a candidate for sheriff who also directs security at the American Hebrew Academy.

School board member Deena Hayes said the parents who have contacted her about Tasers have been adamant about not wanting school resource officers to carry them.

Alan Duncan, chair of the school board, said that the controversy surrounding Tasers has been less intense than that concerning redistricting. He said that among the parents he had heard from, several expressed approval for keeping Tasers in middle schools.

Tasers are hand-held electroshock devices often shaped like guns that uses air cartridges to fire pronged electrodes at a subject located within 21 feet of the shooter. The electrodes are attached to the gun with insulated wires and deliver 50,000 volts of electricity over five-second bursts.

The amount of electricity is enough to override the victim’s central nervous system and cause uncontrollable muscle contractions but not enough to affect the cardiac system, according to the manufacturer, Taser International.

Many law enforcement departments hail Tasers as an alternative to lethal force, and Barnes has described them as just another level on a force spectrum that also includes batons, pepper spray and guns. In their 2005 annual report, Taser International included a letter from the family of a knife-wielding woman with a history of mental health problems who had been subdued with a Taser. The family thanked the company for providing an alternative in a situation that might have otherwise ended with gunfire.

“The only actual weapon that [the officers] are carrying is the gun,” Barnes said.

All his officers receive four hours of training on Taser use, and Barnes said both Taser International and research from other departments around the country assert that the weapons are safe to use with adults and children.

Because Tasers use air cartridges to launch the electrodes, the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission deferred regulation of them to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

According to the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company’s 2005 Annual Report, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated Taser International for, among other things, making false claims about the safety of their products. Taser International reported that the SEC closed the investigation and a spokesman from the agency refused to comment on the findings.

In addition to the federal investigation, the company is party to dozens of wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits across the country. So far, the company has won or settled all of its cases out of court.

An Amnesty International report released in November 2004 counted 70 people who died after being Tasered. The report documented cases in which Amnesty International researchers believed excessive force might have been used. In some of the cases medical examiners named Tasers as a cause of death, although the victims also had drugs in their system, preexisting heart conditions or sometimes both.

The report, “Excessive and Lethal Force? Amnesty International’s concerns about deaths and ill-treatment involving police use of Tasers” reported on the use of Tasers in cities like Phoenix, where all officers carry them. In that city, police reported a 54 percent decrease in officer-involved shootings from 2002 to 2003. Tasers were used in 354 use-of-force incidents in Phoenix that year; a number that the report points out is much higher than the 28 officer shootings the year before.

The Amnesty International survey concludes that while Tasers may decrease the use of guns, their presence increases the overall use of force in a department. Instead of using Tasers only in situations where officers, perpetrators or bystanders were in imminent danger, officers often used the electroshocks on uncooperative suspects.

None of those who died after being Tasered were younger than 18, according to the report. Tasers have been used in school settings, sometimes against elementary school-aged children. In one case, a 13-year-old Arizona girl was subjected to a Taser when she threw a book in a library.

Hayes said she was particularly concerned for the safety of black students, who are disproportionately represented among students disciplined by school resource officers.

“We had a student who had a heart attack at Western Guilford [High School],” Hayes said. “We have kids who have undiagnosed heart conditions. What if they get hit by a Taser?”

Barnes is responsible for arming his deputies and did not have to obtain school board approval for the Tasers. He said school resource officers in Mecklenburg County have carried Tasers for three years without incident.

“What if a twelve-year-old with a knife is threatening an officer?” he asked. “Now the officer has another option.”

Barnes, who purchased Tasers for his department with federal forfeiture money from drug busts, said that Greensboro and High Point police chiefs told him they would purchase the weapons if they had enough money.

The school board has charged Superintendent Terry Grier with exploring alternatives to keeping school resource officers in middle schools, Hayes said.

Barnes is standing his ground. The sheriff’s office has a board that reviews use-of-force incidents, and Barnes offered a school board member a seat on that panel.

Barnes said he is not planning to remove the Tasers from school resource officers and described the controversy as “a tempest in a teapot.”

Barnes efforts are not enough for Hayes.

“[The sheriff’s office] hasn’t been very cooperative,” she said. “They are unwilling to come to any compromise.”

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