Tasers: How safe are they? The answer may surprise you
Interactions with police can be a scary situation.
Officers are trained to use force only when necessary, and most of the time no one gets hurt.
Even when force is used, Tri-City law enforcement have a lot of less-lethal options — batons, pepper spray and Taser stun guns.
Yet two people died in January in the Tri-Cities after police shocked them with Tasers.
The first happened when Richland officers tried stunning Jose Mercado Sr. outside a Wilson Street home after he allegedly began threatening to punch one of them.
A neighbor said Mercado was shocked a second time, and that’s when he collapsed.
Less than 24 hours later, Washington state troopers and other local police chased Samuel Gonzales into an orchard north of Prosser. They spent four hours negotiating with the Grandview man, who was threatening to kill himself or force police to kill him.
Officers eventually got close enough to shock Gonzales. He became unresponsive after officers arrested him.
In both cases, officers tried to save the men, but their efforts failed, officials said.
Police know there are risks to using the electrically charged devices. Those risks are still much less than the lethal force of using a gun.
“We don’t want to injure anyone,” Kennewick Detective Aaron Hamel said. “The hard part is they know what we’re willing to do, but we don’t know what they’re willing to do.”
Why some die after Taser shocks
Explaining why some people die after Taser shocks is still being studied.
A condition blamed for deaths connected to the weapons is called “excited delirium.” It is linked specifically to people who died while, or shortly after, they were being arrested, according to a team of researchers from Canada writing for the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine.
In a study looking at 66 other examinations of the condition, the researchers found the people involved are normally men in their 30s who had abused cocaine, methamphetamine or ecstasy.
The study found there isn’t a universally recognized definition.
As part of a Reuters’ series on Tasers, the news service created an interactive map showing deaths where a Taser was involved.
Benton County is listed twice on the map. The most recent was the Sept. 27 death of Nicholas J. Garza.
An officer shocked Garza after he refused to follow commands. Garza didn’t stop.
Once police got Garza under control, they took him to Trios Southridge Hospital, where he later died.
The Benton County Coroner’s Office determined Garza died from a methamphetamine overdose.
January’s two cases are similar to Garza’s. Autopsies found the two men who died in January suffered heart attacks linked to methamphetamine.
In Mercado’s case he also had heart disease, the Benton County Coroner’s Office reported.
The other case in Reuters’ series came six years earlier when Kevin Culp was shocked by a Taser and was dropped on his head while officials say he was combative during a seizure.
An autopsy showed he died on Christmas Day 2012 from a lack of oxygen while he was strapped into a restraint chair in the Benton County jail.
The coroner ruled his death was not related to the Taser shock. Benton County reached a $750,000 settlement with his family who said he was deprived his special anti-seizure medication.
Taser-related injuries usually are easier to explain. For instance, if someone is shocked and they fall, they could hit their head or break an arm or leg.
In 2007 in Benton County, a man suffered a skull fracture and bruised brain when a former West Richland police officer shocked him with a Taser at a gas station convenience store in Benton City during a confrontation.
The man survived and West Richland and Benton County settled with him for $350,000.
Tracking Taser use
Axon, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company who makes Tasers, says the weapons have been fired 3.9 million times since they were first sold in the late 1980s.
The company released its statistics about how often the weapons were studied following the Reuters news series, which reported that no government agencies track deaths related to the weapon.
The news service documented 1,005 incidents from the early 1980s to 2017 where a Taser was used and the person died.
When the weapon is used correctly, most independent research finds that deaths are rare, Reuters reported.
One of the researchers, Jared Strote, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Emergency Medicine, spent more than a decade studying use of force by police, including Tasers. He worked with the Seattle Police Department to study what happened to the 1,101 people who were shocked between 2001-06.
Strote and researchers found only a quarter of those shocked went to the emergency room, and only a quarter of those ER patients were admitted to the hospital.
Of those admitted, about 4 percent were for trauma related to their arrest or medical reasons.
What is clear to Strote is that the weapon does less damage than a gun.
“In most cases, it is the best option to minimize injuries to the person being restrained and the officers involved,” he said.
A 2011 Department of Justice report found the weapon is safer than other less-lethal options for both the officer and the person being arrested.
Detective Hamel echoed that, saying it’s one of the safest tools police have to take someone into custody.
“There is a risk any time we go hands on with anyone,” Hamel said. “There is no safe way to take someone into custody if they want to fight with us. ... All we can do is to try and minimize the risk.”
How do officers train with Tasers?
It’s something that Detective Hamel and Richland police Lt. Chris Lee have seen first-hand. The two have led training classes about police use-of-force.
Force can range from simply showing up to a scene all the way up to shooting a person.
Not every department in Washington has the same weapons, even if most use some version of a Taser.
That’s led to Taser training being handled by each department individually, though Hamel said they use Axon’s recommendations when creating classes.
Officers learning how to use the weapon practice with a Taser that doesn’t shock. Officers then get refresher training each year.
There’s also court rulings and state law shaping departments’ use-of-force policies. Officers can use the amount of force reasonable to complete the arrest, defend themselves and control the situation.
Officers weigh factors such as the severity of the crime, the threat posed by a suspect and the risk to the public.
“So for example, if I’m in an ER and I use use pepper spray, I realize it doesn’t just affect the person that I’m spraying, it’s going to affect the entire ER,” Lee said.
Lee isn’t able to say what the best situation is to use a Taser because so many factors affect how they work.
Bulky clothes block probes from getting to the skin, and the weapon has to be used within certain distances. The probes can’t be any further than the distance of a T-shirt from a person’s skin, or they won’t work.
There are also tactical decisions. If a person is too close, they could potentially attack before the officer draws.
Hamel and Lee have been shocked before as part of the training. They say once a Taser’s shock cycle ends, the person can move.
“As soon as the Taser hit, I started to count and I was trying to not rush it too much, because everything hurt,” Lee said. “As soon as the power went off, I had full control of my body.”
Hamel said one of the best attributes of the Taser is its ability to stop violence. People tend to stop resisting once an officer readies their Taser.
“Most people who have been tased once don’t want to be tased again,” he said.