High voltage: How safe are the cops’ new Tasers?

A couple of months ago, a police officer at the University of Virginia fired on a drug-intoxicated intruder who had lunged at him, hitting the man, who promptly crumpled to the ground.

But not a drop of blood was shed, and within seconds of being handcuffed and restrained by the police, he was again as functional and alert as a person on ecstasy and ‘shrooms could be.

The suspect, who had entered a dormitory and assaulted a student, was not shot with a gun. Instead, he was shot with a Taser electronic control device, popularly called a stun gun, which temporarily paralyzed him long enough for the officers to handcuff him.

As the New Haven Board of Aldermen considers a controversial proposal by the Deadly Force Task Force to introduce 50 Tasers to the New Haven Police Department, these devices may soon be making headlines closer to home.

When an officer pulls the trigger of a Taser gun, it fires a cartridge containing two small dart-like objects attached to wires connected to the gun. The darts then stick to the skin or the clothes of the target, temporarily stunning him.

“The wires trace back to the gun so that the holder can control it,” said former full-time police officer Jay Kehoe, senior regional manager for Taser International. “It’s a five second window of incapacitation [and] when it’s over, it’s over.”

That incapacitation is the result of electrical impulses sent from the Taser that have been designed to mimic electrical impulses sent by the brain to control muscle movement, he said. The impulses force affected muscles to contract 19 times per second, causing the recipient to lose control of his or her body during the duration of the stun.

Stuns are generally set to last for five seconds, during which time officers may handcuff or otherwise take control of the person.

The 50,000 volts of electricity released by the Taser affect both the sensory nervous system and motor nervous system, marking an improvement over its predecessors, Kehoe said. Stun guns made before 1999 affected only the sensory nervous system, he said, so people who were stunned would feel intense pain but would not be incapacitated and could continue to attack.

Though 50,000 volts may seem like a lot of electricity, Kehoe said, the current, which is only 0.0021 amperes — as opposed to a Christmas tree bulb’s one amp — renders the charge too weak to affect the central nervous system.

“[It] requires 300 to 400 Joules of energy in order to be able to carry heart tissue,” Kehoe said. “The Taser works at 0.36 Joules, so even someone with a pacemaker won’t be hurt.”

Cardiologist Hugh Calkins, who serves on Taser International’s Medical Advisory Board, said a Taser does not have the capability to cause arrhythmia in the heart or cardiac arrest.

Others, including organizations like Amnesty International, are unconvinced of stun guns’ safety.

Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut Roger Vann, who is a member of New Haven’s Deadly Force Task Force, said he opposed the Taser proposal.

“The jury is still out on Tasers,” he said. “Given the continued controversy about Tasers, it would be inappropriate that this task force that was charged with [facilitating] a reduction in lethal force [recommend them], because I just don’t buy that this is a less lethal weapon.”

Vann cited a number of deaths that have occurred in Connecticut in the past year following the use of Tasers. Most recently, a man in Milford, Conn., died after being stunned twice, though the Taser was not established as the main cause of death.

Kehoe said there have been only about 20 cases in which the Taser gun has been cited officially as a contributing factor to death. There have been two cases in which coroners have declared the Taser as the immediate cause of death, he said, but those declarations were later refuted upon further review. Of the 26 times Taser International has been sued by victims, the company has never lost a case.

A study recently published in “Prehospital Emergency Care” investigated 37 deaths that followed Taser usage — out of the 75 between 2001 and 2004 that the researchers identified — for which autopsy records are available. The researchers found that in 27 percent of the cases, Tasers were reported as a potential or contributing cause of death. They cited a common trend of stimulant drug use or pre-existing heart disease among the deceased, which they said is consistent with other restraint-related fatalities, such as when a club or pepper spray is used.

Another recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has countered some claims that having drugs in the body makes a person more sensitive to the shocks. Researchers showed that pigs with cocaine in their blood actually required more electric shock to die, indicating that overdoses, independent of Taser usage, are more likely to be the actual cause of death than Tasers themselves.

Kehoe, who drives a silvery-metallic, customized Hummer H-3 with “Taser International” stamped on its sides, said that though some critics may have doubts about the safety of Tasers, he has none whatsoever.

“I’ve been Tasered 27 times [for demonstrations],” he said. “There’s nothing pleasant about it, but when it’s over, it’s over.”

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