In a detailed study of fatalities and litigation involving police use of stun guns in the United States, Reuters documented 1005 incidents since the early 2000s in which people died after police stunned them with Tasers. The unprecedented investigation found that many who die are especially vulnerable – unarmed, in psychological distress, and seeking help.
Tasers fire two darts that are connected to the stun gun by thin wires. When the darts hit their target, they deliver a pulsed current that causes paralysis. Tasers can also be pressed directly against the body, causing intense pain but no paralysis. In the early 2000s, Taser International marketed its stun gun to police as a non-lethal tool for dealing with mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, and intoxicated people. Today, about 90 percent of the nation’s 18,000 police agencies use Tasers.
No government agency tracks fatalities from police use of Tasers. The company would not share its data about fatalities with reporters, but says not a single person has died from the direct effects of the Taser’s shock to the heart or body. Almost always, it told Reuters, those deaths result from drug use, underlying physiological conditions such as heart problems, or other police force used along with the Taser. Taser asserts that only 24 people have ever died from its stun guns (18 from fatal injuries in falls caused by a Taser strike, and six from fires sparked by the stun gun’s electrical arc).
Reuters obtained autopsy findings for 712 of the 1005 deaths it documented. In 153 of these, use of a Taser was cited as a cause or contributing factor in the death, typically one of several factors such as heart and medical conditions, drug use, and various forms of trauma. Court documents provided details about what happened in more than 400 cases, and revealed that Tasers were the only form of force allegedly used by police in about one in four of these cases.
The investigation revealed that a quarter of the people who died after police stunned them were suffering from a mental health breakdown or neurological disorder. In nine of every 10 incidents, the deceased was unarmed, and more than 100 of the encounters began with a 911 call for help during a medical emergency.
Taser International revised its training materials in recent years to warn that shocking people who are or who appear to be mentally ill may raise liability issues. The company says it is up to police to decide when to use Tasers, and police policies regarding the use of Tasers vary widely. Recently, some federal courts have held that Tasers should only be used on actively aggressive subjects, and two states have passed laws that set parameters for using Tasers on people struggling with mental illness or emotional crises.