Taser use by police increasing in Md., U.S.

The Baltimore Sun

When a Baltimore police officer used a Taser this week to stop a 41-year-old woman, her death became the region's second fatality related to the stun gun this year - underscoring the dilemma police officers face as they try to avoid using deadly force.

The electronic shock devices are proliferating among Maryland police departments, as well as across the country. But no independent, national studies have been done on the risks linked to Tasers, which can send up to 50,000 volts into a body.

Uywanda Peterson of Northeast Baltimore died Tuesday night after a confrontation with city police. On March 16 in Baltimore County, an officer fired a Taser at Ryan Lee Meyers, 40, after police said he refused orders to drop a baseball bat. He went into cardiac arrest and died.

Some critics say the devices are more deadly than other options, such as a beanbag gun, and should be avoided until definitive research can be completed.

"It's an open question right now," said John C. Hunsaker III, chairman of the Nation Association of Medical Examiners. "If you listen to the [Taser manufacturer], Tasers never cause an injury."

Hunsaker is co-chairman of a National Institute of Justice task force conducting one of the first nationwide reviews of stun-gun-related deaths.

Taser International Inc., the industry leader in stun guns, and law enforcement officials say the use of the devices saves lives by giving officers an alternative to their guns.

Taser has tested its device on 200,000 volunteers and has never had a death, a company spokesman said.

"Clearly, it's a tragic case when a death occurs," spokesman Steve Tuttle said. "But, hands down, the Taser is the safer alternative use of force."

Alley chase

The circumstances of Peterson's death Tuesday night are under investigation. Police say the officer - 10-year veteran Irving Hinkson - shot Peterson with a stun gun after she began assaulting him during a drug investigation.

Matt Jablow, a police spokesman, said Hinkson, a member of the department's SWAT team, had chased a man in a rear alley behind the 3300 block of Belair Road about 10 p.m. While fleeing, the man tossed away drugs. When the officer tried to recover the drugs, police said, Peterson attacked him.

The officer used the stun gun on her, police said. Peterson was transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she was pronounced dead 45 minutes later. Autopsy results are pending.

Jablow said several details of the incident remain under investigation, including whether the officer first tried to use pepper spray, if he had time to warn Peterson that he would use the stun gun, and how many times he might have fired the weapon. "It appears, preliminarily, that the Tasering was justified," Jablow said.

Cierra Peterson, the woman's 19-year-old daughter, referred questions to the family's attorney, Donald Daneman. He said he is gathering statements from witnesses, seeking details from police and waiting to see the results of the medical examiner's investigation. "You can't just file a lawsuit. You have to back it up with evidence," Daneman said. "If we feel we have a viable case, yes, a suit will be filed."

Authorities also are awaiting autopsy results from Meyers' death. Police said that the man continued to fight officers after being hit with the Taser.

In the Baltimore area, local law enforcement agencies are increasingly adding stun guns to their officers' inventory of weapons. In most instances, the agencies have authorized only a limited number of officers to use stun guns, while some departments have deployed the weapons but continue to scrutinize their use and effectiveness.

Baltimore County's police department has used Tasers for about a year in a pilot program that has trained about 100 officers to use 14 Tasers, a county police spokesman said.

Under the pilot program, police drafted a preliminary policy that says Tasers may be used to stop the attack of a violent individual, to disable people threatening harm to themselves or others, and to halt a threatening animal.

About 100 of the Baltimore Police Department's 3,000 sworn officers are authorized to use stun guns. In the department's "use of force" guidelines, police place an officer's decision to use a stun gun on the same level as the use of pepper spray - a policy that mirrors national standards set by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Police officers "shall consider the use of the [stun gun] to control the escalation of resisting, aggressive, and violent behaviors of persons subject to potential arrest," the guidelines state.

More than 80 police agencies in Maryland are equipped with the device, according to Taser International Inc. Police agencies in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties have been using the devices in varying degrees.

Anne Arundel County is set to begin using stun guns this spring, a move spurred by a spate of police shootings last year, said spokesman Lt. David Waltemeyer.

Existing research and statistics show very few deaths of suspects struck by Tasers can be directly linked to a stun gun.

John G. Webster, a biomedical engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, has tested Tasers on the hearts of pigs. He said there is a "very small chance" that a Taser can cause a heart to stop pumping. If that happened, the suspect would drop dead. Instead, his study states, "many deaths following [stun gun] use occur much later and may be caused by drug overdose, positional asphyxia or other causes."

He said guns cause far more deaths and injuries.

"The Taser saves a lot of lives," Webster said.

Amnesty International is more skeptical. The human rights group tracks deaths associated with stun guns. Its last count put the total at 254 since 2001. But medical examiners said stun guns were responsible for only seven of those deaths. In 16 other cases, medical examiners said the devices contributed to the deaths. The rest were related to other problems, such as drug overdoses - a finding supported by other studies in Canada and Florida.

Dalia Hashad, director of the USA program for Amnesty International, said her organization wants police departments to stop using the devices until there is more independent scientific research about deaths that follow a stun-gun incident.

Tuttle, the spokesman for Taser International, said Amnesty International fails to subtract deaths that are determined to be unrelated to Tasers.

"Even when an autopsy determines the death was caused by a lethal dose of illegal drugs or a physical abnormality, Amnesty has refused to subtract these incidents from its unscientific body count," Tuttle said in a statement.

'Excited delirium'

One of the pre-existing conditions that might have led to the deaths of stun-gun-struck suspects is called "excited delirium."

"The vast majority of these cases have been cleared by medical examiners," Tuttle said. "Most are related to excited delirium or drug overdose."

Medical delirium is a controversial term that Hashad says is a "made-up" medical diagnosis. Others claim it is a legitimate condition caused when an addict fueled by drugs gets too excited during a confrontation and suddenly dies, typically of heart-related problems.

She also said that Taser International uses the threat of lawsuits to bully medical examiners into declaring causes of death other than Taser devices.

The publicly traded company says in its annual report to shareholders that it is actively involved in "litigation against medical examiners who made errors in their autopsy reports."

When faced with wrongful-death lawsuits, the company has not lost once in 41 cases, Tuttle said.

There are 260,000 Tasers in use every day by 11,000 U.S. police departments, he added. Many agencies have experienced drastic reductions of officer-involved shootings after Tasers are deployed, and injuries to officers and suspects also decrease, he said.

Statistics on how often Baltimore police officers used Tasers were not available yesterday. City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said he plans to introduce a bill Monday calling for Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm to explain Taser use to the council. "I'm not trying to say the officer was wrong," Harris said. "I want to confirm he used the proper protocol for using excessive force."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com doug.donovan@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Nick Shields, Laura McCandlish and Lauren Brown contributed to this article.

TASER FIGURES

According to Taser International, the maker of the stun gun used by many police agencies:

11,000 police departments in the U.S. use Tasers;

260,000 Taser devices are in use by police every day;

200,000 volunteers were exposed to Tasers, with no deaths.

Amnesty International has linked 254 deaths to stun guns. But medical examiners held the guns responsible for only seven deaths. In 16 other cases, medical examiners said the devices contributed to the deaths.

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