Civil Liberties

Shocked to Death

Tasers under fire.


Tasers, "nonlethal" dart guns with a range of about 15 feet that deliver 50,000-volt electric shocks for five seconds at a time, are under fire for their roles in several civilian deaths and police injuries.

About 6,000 law enforcement agencies, including officers at nine public schools in Tempe, Arizona, have Tasers in their arsenals. A November report from Amnesty International on Taser use in the U.S. found that the weapons "are used on unarmed suspects in 80 percent of the cases, for verbal non-compliance in 36 percent, and for cases involving 'deadly assault' only 3 percent of the time."

Tasers have become especially controversial in Florida, where police recently have zapped a 6-year-old boy, a fleeing 12-year-old girl (allegedly drunk), a 14-year-old girl in the back of a squad car, and a wheelchair-bound man brandishing scissors. It's policy in at least three Florida police departments that Tasers are appropriate for suspects merely offering "passive physical resistance" without posing any threat to officers or the public.

In December 2004 alone, three Florida suspects died after being tasered. The Arizona Republic reported in January that it had discovered 84 deaths of shocked suspects since 1999 in the U.S. and Canada, although in only 11 of those cases have medical examiners authoritatively blamed tasering for the deaths. Manufacturer Taser International claims the suspects would have died whether shocked or not. (Of the 84 deaths the Republic examined, 36 were officially blamed on drug overdoses.)

Former Maricopa County, Arizona, deputy Samuel Powers is suing Taser International over a spinal fracture he claims resulted from being tasered in a training exercise. (The company strongly encourages police to zap themselves in Taser training.) The family of a San Francisco man who died of cardiac arrest after a New Year's Day tasering is also suing the company. As these controversies mounted in early 2005, USA Today reports, at least six police departments delayed Taser buys. Taser International stock fell almost 10 percent in the first week of the year, after quadrupling in value last year.