Over the past several years, police departments across the country have adopted the Taser, a brand of electroshock weapon, as a “less-lethal” alternative for when things get hot. The stun guns have been touted for their ability to reduce fatalities in law enforcement, but today, a first-of-its-kind study published online in the American Journal of Cardiology suggested Tasers do nothing of the sort.
In fact, collective data from police departments showed that in the first year they used Tasers, sudden deaths went up sixfold, and firearm-related deaths increased twofold. After that year, the numbers fell back to normal, which suggests to the study's authors, UCSF doctors Zian Tseng and Byron Lee, that there may be a learning curve in the safe operation of Tasers. It also raises a question about whether officers are mistaking their guns for Tasers, as some have speculated was the case in the Oscar Grant shooting.
“Our interpretation for these finding is that police agencies are recognizing these events,” Tseng told SF Weekly. He speculated that, when people die unexpectedly after being Tasered, the police may be making new policies regarding when and how they use the Tasers.
Tseng has been speaking out in the media for years, warning that Tasers can pose a lethal risk when the volts are applied repeatedly, directly over the heart. That said, he admits that he study isn't exactly conclusive. The largest 10 cities in the United States were unwilling to release their statistics, and the data from the 50 participating cities did not include any detailed information about the sudden or firearm-related deaths.
Regardless, the San Francisco Police Department might want to think twice on the recommendations of its recent organizational assessment — which pushed for Tasers.