The death of Roberto Laudisio is another tragic addition to the list of taser related deaths in Australia and worldwide. Amnesty International has calculated that at least 500 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being shocked with tasers, either during their arrest or while in jail.
But just as the NSW State Coroner is calling for a review of the relevant NSW Police Standard Operating Procedures and associated taser training, and the Police Integrity Commission launches its own inquiry, so too should there be comprehensive independent research into the safety of the product itself.
The taser was invented by Jack Cover, a NASA researcher, and named after the Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle, a futuristic weapon in one of Tom Swift’s novels. It was later developed, and continues to be sold, by Taser International.
NSW Police use Taser International’s Taser Model X26. In a peer reviewed article in "Circulation", the American Heart Association’s journal, Douglas Zipe looked at eight cases involving the X26 and concluded that discharge can cause cardiac arrest by causing the heart to beat fast and erratically, as shown in animal testing and human reports. The concern is the specific waveform X26 uses, which more easily "captures" the heart beat.
Tasers can be deployed in either dart mode or drive-stun mode. In dart mode, two needles attached to wires deliver an electrical pulse of 50,000 volts to the body, causing involuntary muscle contractions on the body mass between the two barbs. In drive-stun mode the taser is pressed against the body, causing a painful current to run through the specific area to which the taser is applied but not causing neuromuscular incapacitation.
This year Aaron Sussman, Chief Executive Officer of UCLA Law Review, wrote a paper, "Shocking the Conscience: What Police Tasers and Weapons Technology Reveal About Excessive Force Law’ which revealed that:
"There is broad agreement that the available data on taser effects, regarding both the physical effects and the sensation of being tasered, is lacking. Further much of the data available comes from studies funded by or closely connected to Taser International, casting doubt on the studies’ neutrality. This is particularly problematic in light of claims by Taser International’s shareholders that the company has ‘wildly mischaracterised’ the dangers posed by its products…"
Sussman also notes that "Further research is needed on the effects of deploying a taser in drive-stun mode versus in dart mode". Some expert opinion points to drive-stun being potentially more harmful than dart mode. The Coroner’s report reveals that Roberto Laudisio was drive-stunned seven times within 51 seconds.
A jury in the 2008 US District Court product liability case of Heston v TASER International was convinced that the use of Taser M25 model caused metabolic acidosis, a condition in which lactic acid, produced during physical exertion, accumulates more quickly than the body can expel it, which raises the risk of heart attack. It’s interesting that a warning was given in the November 2011 TASER X26 Handheld Electronic Control Device Warnings, Instructions, and Information: Law Enforcement about the risk of taser use causing metabolic acidosis.
But the warnings don’t stop there. The X26 comes with a warning that:
"Law enforcement personnel are called upon to deal with individuals in crisis who are often physiologically or metabolically compromised and may be susceptible to arrest-related death ("ARD"). The factors that may increase susceptibility for an ARD have not been fully characterised but may include: a hypersympathetic state, autonomic dysregulation, capture myopathy, hyperthermia, altered electrolytes, severe acidosis, cardiac arrest, drug or alcohol effects (toxic withdrawal or sensitisation to arrhythmias), alterations in brain function (agitated or excited delirium), cardiac disease, pulmonary disease, sickle cell disease, and other pathological conditions… Follow your agency’s Guidance when dealing with physiologically or metabolically compromised persons."
For Roberto Laudisio and the young officers involved, the "agency’s Guidance" seems to have been sadly lacking. Will police instructors ever be able to train officers to reliably spot potential susceptibilities and forego taser use in order to avoid arrest-related deaths?
The fact is that there hasn’t been anywhere near enough independent, objective research into taser safety and risks to justify these weapons being put into the hands of inadequately trained police officers with a discretion to use them on members of the public.
We’ve already seen what happens when things go wrong, and deaths and injuries inevitably will continue until, at the very least, the physiological consequences of using them are objectively assessed and proper training and strict "safe use" protocols, as to both circumstances and intensity of use, are independently established and rigidly enforced.
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