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Spring 2005 Issue

Pepper Spray Eight Wins Jury Consensus
Current Local Medical Marijuana Policies
Supreme Court Ruling Allows Dog Sniffs at Traffic Stops
Pesticide Use Illegal on Pot
NORML Conference Report

Patriot Act Redux
Grave Concerns About Tasers
G.I. Rights and Military Recruitment in Schools
C.O.s and the Draft

Grave Concerns About Tasers

By Ellen Komp

In the wake of a new Amnesty International report listing 103 deaths in the U.S. and Canada over the last five years related to Taser stun guns, and a call by the International Chiefs of Police for caution in their use, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department has announced it will continue using the weapons.

Lt. Mike Downey heads the Use of Force committee for the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department, which reviews all types of force used by the department. Downey said the committee reviews crime reports every six months to determine if the department's use of force was appropriate, if any trends have developed that need to be addressed, or if there are any training issues at hand. Downey said Tasers have been used for two or three years, about 20-50 times. "They have been used very appropriately," he said. Downey thinks the Taser has averted hundreds of injuries or deaths, by allowing officers not to use a nightstick or deadly force. Sometimes just showing the weapon has halted peoples' aggression, he said, perhaps because they have seen it used on TV shows, like "Cops."

Some officers in the Sheriff's Department have experienced Taser blasts during training, Downey said. The weapons temporarily incapacitate suspects by disrupting their motor functions with 50,000 volts of electricity. The weapon is deployed for 1-5 seconds; after that time motor functions return, but subjects are generally subdued by the prospect of another blast of current.

Last November 8, 47-year-old Miranda resident David Cleveland died in custody at Humboldt County jail after a Taser was used on him by sheriffs at the Garberville station. The coroner's report named methamphetamine overdose as the cause of death; a violent struggle and Taser exposure were noted as "added factors." Dr. Susan Comfort, a pathologist working in Shasta county, performed the autopsy on November 9.

Methamphetamine overdose can cause cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, according to Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager. He said Cleveland's blood was found to contain 0.82 mg/liter of methamphetamine, and levels between 0.2 mg/l and 0.6 are considered toxic and possibly fatal. Jager said some studies say that postmortem redistribution of drugs might increase their bloodstream concentration, as drugs stored in muscle and tissue leach back into the blood, but no definitive studies have been published. In any case, Jager said he was confident that the methamphetamine concentration in Cleveland's body was ample to produce a fatal toxic reaction.

When Cleveland was first arrested, Jager said, he was examined by Deputy Dopps in Garberville before his Taser exposure, and found to have a pulse of 120 beats/minute, a rate consistent with large doses of methamphetamine. While attempting to transfer Cleveland into a squad car to transport him to Eureka, he reportedly became combative and a Taser was employed twice, but the weapon didn't seem to have an effect on him. After being booked into jail, Cleveland became unresponsive and stopped breathing.

In a separate incident, on March 12 of this year, suspect Randy Hall was Tasered after sheriffs chased him down Johnson Rd. to Quail Lane (off Hwy 36). He locked his doors and windows, whereupon officers broke the window and Tasered him when he didn't comply. Taken into custody, Hall was charged with evasion of a police officer and driving under the influence. No injuries were reported.

Amnesty International representative William Schultz said on Democracy Now! that the problem seems to be that Taser International has marketed the weapons as non-lethal and, although there may be uses for the guns, their use and health effects should be examined. Schultz expressed grave concerns about marketing the guns directly to the public.

California Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco and chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, has introduced AB 1237, which would disallow the sale of Tasers to the general public in the state. In at least one other state, legislation has been introduced allowing the use of lethal force by police against members of the public employing Tasers. Websites like http://www.beststungun.com/ list stun gun models that deliver up to 900,000 volts. Downey thinks they might be a hand-held type of Taser, not the probe model.

Late last year Homeland Security nominee Bernard Kerick divested himself of $5.7 million in Taser International stock before eventually removing his name from nomination. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in a February 21 article by Chronicle staff writer Alan Gathrait that Taser International has hired 263 police consultants who don't necessarily identify themselves as working for Taser when they perform demonstrations for police departments. Taser also has signed up about 1,000 police officers to provide a one-hour in-home training course to people who purchase a civilian stun-gun model, which the firm began marketing last fall.

Taser refuses to identify paid police consultants or the agencies where they work, citing their privacy rights. Leno recently sent a letter to Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith demanding that the firm identify police consultants and disclose whether they are working for California law enforcement agencies or marketing stun guns to departments here.

Taser has sold the devices to more than 6,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide since 1999, including about 80 percent of California's 636 agencies. More than a dozen Bay Area law enforcement agencies use Tasers, including those in San Jose, Fremont and Vallejo, and others are considering purchases. The San Francisco, Newark and Palo Alto agencies are holding off on their use until independent research resolves safety concerns.

Since August 2004, six people have died in Northern California after being jolted by police stun guns, the Chronicle reported. The victims include an emotionally disturbed Pacifica man whose family said he was shocked repeatedly and an unarmed Vallejo car-theft suspect zapped as he climbed a fence. Although Amnesty International and other groups point to at least a dozen deaths in which coroners cited the Taser as a contributing cause, the company maintains that drug intoxication, heart disease or psychosis often kills suspects involved in altercations with police. Taser officials maintain that their stun gun lives up to the company motto -- "Saving Lives Every Day" -- by preventing attacks on police officers and incapacitating dangerous suspects without the need to use deadly force.

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