Ross D. Franklin/AP
TASER X26, top, is the standard police
issue while the
TASER C2, bottom, is the
new consumer model. (AP)

Manslaughter Charge Highlights Danger of Tasers

August 14, 2008 05:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
A former police officer has been charged with manslaughter for the death of a man he shot with a Taser in a case that may define how Tasers are used in the future.

Officer Faces Charges

Last January, police officer Scott Nugent arrested 21-year-old Baron Pikes, handcuffed him and shot him six times in three minutes with a Taser as he struggled to escape.

Once Pikes was in the police car, Nugent shot him a seventh time in the chest. Pikes stopped responding, but Nugent shot him twice more after removing him from the car. Pikes was ruled dead within a half hour.

Nugent was charged with manslaughter August 13 by a grand jury that ruled he used the Taser “unnecessarily” and failed to get medical help. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

The mother of Pikes’s four-year-old son has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Nugent, city officials and Taser International, the manufacturer of the gun.

The case comes just two months after Taser International, the largest producer of stun-guns, lost its first product-liability claim after a Taser victim died of cardiac arrest. The jury ruled that Taser had not properly warned police about the dangers of its product, and awarded the victim’s family $6.2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

A similar case is unfolding in Canada, where Royal Canadian Mounted Police are facing an inquiry into the October 2007 death of a Polish immigrant. A British Columbia prosecutor is deciding whether charges should be filed against any of the Mounties.

Background: The danger of Tasers

Tasers were introduced a decade ago as a high-tech, non-lethal tool for authorities to control violent and dangerous suspects. "If you have someone who has a knife, who is threatening other people but isn't quite at the level where you'd use lethal force, you'd pre-empt with the TASER, get them safely under control before it escalates," explained Taser International CEO Rick Smith.

However, many police officers have used the Taser when there is little or no physical danger. Suspects who are disorientated or acting erratically—often due to drug use or health problems—have been subdued with Tasers. Some have died soon afterwards and many suspect that the Taser contributed to their deaths.

According to a recent Amnesty International report, more than 300 people have died after being struck by a Taser, and in at least 20 cases, the Tasers have been a “causal or contributory factor in the death.” In 2005, an Illinois coroner became the first to rule that a Taser shot was the “primary cause of death.”

Taser International has faced dozens of wrongful death lawsuits—59 as of last October—but all were dismissed until the case in June.
On occasion, prosecutors have considered murder-related charges against police officers for using Tasers. In 2006, after a wheelchair-bound woman died after being shocked ten times by police officers, the Florida State Attorney’s Office ruled the death to be a homicide. However, it also determined that the officers’ actions were justified and no charges were filed.

Opinion & Analysis: How dangerous are tasers?

The Taser has been condemned by several influential organizations, including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations. The UN Convention Against Torture denounced it as a form of torture last November. “The use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use,” it said.

However, Mark W. Kroll, writing for Taser International, argues that Tasers are blamed for many deaths that they don’t cause. He believes that many people who die after being stunned die due to “excited delirium,” brought on by resisting arrest and taking illegal drugs.

A 2007 study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine tends to support Taser’s contentions that Tasers are non-lethal. It found that just three people out of 1,000 suffered serious injuries after being shot with a Taser, and two of the injuries were suffered due to falling. The third person was hospitalized two days after being shot with a “medical condition of unclear relationship to the Taser.”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is studying the matter, and has thus far determined that Tasers are safe for police use. According to the NIJ Web site, “While exposure to conducted energy devices (CEDs) is not risk free, there is no conclusive medical evidence that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of CEDs.”

Though Tasers have been shown to be generally safe, many object to how they are used by police. There are currently no major federal standards regulating the use of Tasers or other conducted energy devices. In a survey of 54 police departments in Northern and Central California, the ACLU’s Mark Schlosberg found a lack of Taser regulations.

“[T]here are very few restrictions to prevent abuse and misuse of the weapon,” he writes. “From the standards that police departments require to use the weapon, to protections for specific sub-populations, there is very little in terms of regulation.”

As a result, some officers use Tasers in situations where they are unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Though Tasers were designed to reduce violence, their overuse tends to create more violent situations. “TASERs are being used as tools of routine force—rather than as weapons of last resort,” writes Amnesty International.

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