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Police Departments’ Use of Tasers Proves Lethal

by Countable | 8.23.17

What’s the story?

One of the preferred methods, considered non-lethal, for subduing suspects in many police departments is the use of tasers, which administer a debilitating electric shock to the body. Reuters has done an extensive investigation of deaths associated with the use of tasers, and found both disturbing stories of taser-related fatalities and evidence of police departments untrained and unprepared for dealing with community members in crisis, especially those suffering mental health problems.

Why does it matter?

Using transcripts from hundreds of interviews, court records and autopsy reports, Reuters documented 1,005 incidents in the United States in which people died after police stunned them with Tasers, nearly all since the early 2000s. In at least 153 of those cases coroners or medical examiners cited the use of the taser as the cause or a contributing factor to the death.

The company that supplies police tasers, Taser International, Inc., maintains that the Reuters report needs to be placed in a wider context. Tasers are used in approximately 90 percent of U.S. police departments and the company estimates they’ve been deployed in the field at least 3,000,000 times.

Reuters also noted that many of the deaths from tasers involved individuals having some sort of mental health or drug-related crisis:

"A quarter of the people who died... were suffering from a mental health breakdown or neurological disorder. In nine of every 10 incidents, the deceased was unarmed. More than 100 of the fatal encounters began with a 911 call for help during a medical emergency.”

This echoes an investigative report published by the Washington Post in 2015 that looked at shooting deaths at the hands of police, but found similar statistics. Of the 462 people shot to death by police in the first six months of 2015, nearly 25 percent were citizens in the throes of a mental health crisis.

In an October 2016 report USA Today noted that more than 3,000 of the nation’s roughly 18,000 police departments have some or all of their officers go through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training. The training is supposed to involve 40 hours of training that includes teaching officers verbal de-escalation skills, scenario-based training and having officers spend time interacting with individuals who have gone through a mental health crisis. The Police Executive Research Forum reports, however, that the average number of hours of CIT training across the country is 8 hours, compared to 58 hours of firearms training.

Reuters also reviewed the 231-slide "User Course" presentation provided to police departments by Taser International, Inc. and only found one slide, #66, that mentioned any guidelines on use of tasers with mentally ill individuals. The focus was on liability issues as opposed to safety when approaching individuals who exhibit “extreme agitation” and “bizarre behavior.”

Police are being asked to stand at the front line in communities that are lacking adequate mental health and medical resources despite not undergoing proper training. Hundreds of people in need of mental health services or medical intervention are dying at the hands of police who are inadequately trained to help them.

Tasers -- despite being less lethal than guns -- are still resulting in needless deaths.

What do you think?

Should tasers still be used by police departments in lieu of more lethal force options? What other types of training do police officers need? Should all police departments mandate the complete 40 hours of CIT training to reduce the likelihood of harm to mentally ill individuals? What help should the federal government be providing to local communities to adequately address their medical and mental health needs to reduce burdens on local police departments? What can you do to help your community address these issues?

Tell us in the comments and then use the Take Action button to tell your reps what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: Royal Airforce Mendenhall)

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