Police officers using stun guns should avoid shooting suspects multiple times or for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of potential injury or death, according to a new U.S. Justice Department study prompted by hundreds of police-involved deaths across the country.
Coroners and other medical experts on the study panel concluded that while the effects of prolonged and repeated stun gun use on the body are not fully understood, most deaths officially attributed to Tasers and similar devices are from multiple or lengthy discharges of the weapons.
The panel reviewed nearly 300 cases in which people died from 1999 to 2005 after police shot them with stun guns, but found that most of the deaths were caused by underlying health problems and other issues. Of those cases, the experts examined 22 in which the use of stun guns was listed as an official cause of death.
The study released Tuesday by the department's research arm, the National Institute of Justice, concludes that it's appropriate for officers to use stun guns to subdue unruly or uncooperative suspects, as long as police adhere to "accepted national guidelines and appropriate use-of-force policy." It also makes several recommendations, including medical screenings for all people shot with stun guns.
The experts also noted that evidence shows the risk of death from a stun gun related incident is less than 0.25 percent, and there's no conclusive evidence that stun guns cause permanent health problems.
"What this study suggests is, indeed, less-than-lethal technologies ... can be effectively used by law enforcement," said John Laub, director of the National Institute of Justice.
Justice Department officials said the study began more than six years ago after Amnesty International and other groups blamed many death of suspects in police custody on stun gun. Both Amnesty International and the United Nations Committee Against Torture have called the use of stuns guns a form of torture in some cases.
More than 12,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide had issued about 260,000 stun guns to officers as of spring of last year, the study said. Of the more than 600 arrest-related deaths in the U.S. each year, there are very few cases in which stun guns are cited the cause or contributory factor, the report said.
Officials at Taser International, the maker of the leading stun guns, said Thursday that there are no peer-reviewed medical studies that have found that prolonged or repeated use of Tasers cause death. In 2009, however, the company advised Taser users to try to avoid shooting people in the chest, because of a very low risk of a health problem.
Alvaro Garzon, a 46-year-old drug and alcohol addiction counselor from New Haven, said the study's cautions about firing stun guns multiple times make sense. Garzon has filed a brutality complaint with New Haven police saying a city officer shot him with a stun gun four times last year during a domestic disturbance call.
"After two times it should be enough," Garzon said in Spanish on Thursday while his daughter, Lina, interpreted for him. "You don't feel good after the second shot. I felt like I was burning inside."
Garzon, who was accepted into a probation program on a charge of assault on a police officer, said he was treated at a hospital for lung problems, and he continues to suffer from the trauma. The status of Garzon's police complaint wasn't immediately clear Thursday night.
Police across the country have faced heated criticism for stun gun deaths.
Connecticut state police are investigating the May 1 death of 26-year-old Marcus Brown, who authorities say was shot with a stun gun by Waterbury police while he was in the back of a police cruiser and handcuffed. Brown's family is calling for federal authorities to investigate; the official cause of death is still pending.
Waterbury police say Brown, who was about 5 feet 6 inches tall and 125 pounds, became combative. The officer who shot Brown, Adrian Sanchez, had been placed on administrative duty under normal procedures.
Earlier this month, Connecticut state police released an investigation report that showed how Middletown police last year shot 35-year-old Efrain Carrion 34 times with stun guns to subdue him while responding to a report that he was despondent and violent. Carrion died later that day.
The medical examiner concluded Carrion died of "excited delirium," a cause of death not recognized by many medical groups but one the Justice Department says is well documented. Several officers were cleared of wrongdoing in the incident.
Last year, a jury in Louisiana acquitted former Winnfield officer Scott Nugent, who was accused of shooting handcuffed suspect Baron Pikes eight times with a Taser gun and charged with manslaughter. Pikes later died.
In 2006, police in Green Cove Springs, Fla., shot a 56-year-old woman in a wheelchair 10 times with a stun gun and she died. Police say Emily Marie Delafield was swinging knives and a hammer at relative and police, and officers had tried to talk her into dropping the weapons before they were forced to subdue her. The officers' actions were found to be justified.
Lt. J. Paul Vance, a spokesman for Connecticut state police, said police officers never want to get into a situation where they're forced to fire Tasers or other weapons.
"Certainly you're looking for voluntary compliance from a suspect ... but unfortunately that's not always achievable," Vance said.