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US Communities Start Rethinking Use of Taser Shock

2019-2-9

Warren Ragudo died after two Taser shocks by California police seeking to end a family argument.

Ramzi Saad died after a Taser shock by police during a dispute between Saad and his mother.

Chinedu Okobi died after police used a Taser to stop him from walking across a busy street.

FILE - An X2 Taser gun is shown on display at the Taser booth during the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego, California, Oct. 17, 2016.
FILE - An X2 Taser gun is shown on display at the Taser booth during the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego, California, Oct. 17, 2016.

Each person killed was unarmed. All three had histories of mental health problems. And they all died last year in the northern California county of San Mateo.

They were among at least 49 people who died in 2018 after being shocked by police with a Taser. That number is similar to the number of Taser deaths nationwide in each of the past two years, the Reuters news agency reports. The news agency says its findings are based on an examination of police records, news reports and court documents.

Taser deaths normally receive little, if any, public attention in the United States. No U.S. government agency follows such deaths, and medical examiners use different rules to decide if a Taser shock caused a death.

Some communities now are considering stronger rules for using Tasers. Some say such weapons are used too often. Others say they are too often deployed against people with physical problems or mental conditions.

Reuters talked to 14 police departments, county governments and cities that saw a Taser death or a serious Taser-related incident in 2018.

Of those, five are examining their Taser policies; three had looked into the issue and decided not to make changes; and five did not comment because investigations into Taser use were still active.

Reuters has documented a total of at least 1,081 deaths following use of Tasers, almost since they began coming into widespread use in the early 2000s. In many of those cases, the Taser was used with other force, such as hitting or restraining the person.

The weapon gives a small electric shock to its target, making the person unable to move for a short time.

When Tasers were new, police believed they were a perfect non-deadly weapon. Now they are rethinking that decision.

“I personally think it would be appropriate to have a moratorium on their use,” said Dave Pine, a San Mateo government official.

Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are unusual if the Taser is used correctly. But in 2017, Reuters found that many police officers do not know how to use the Taser correctly.

The news agency was able to get information for 779 of the 1,081 deaths it has documented. The Taser was listed as a cause or part of the cause of death in 21 percent of the cases.

Axon Enterprise, Inc., an Arizona-based company, manufactures the Taser. Axon says most deaths involving the weapon are a result of drug use, or underlying physical conditions, such as heart problems. Another reason is using the Taser with other police force.

Axon said in an email that Tasers are “not risk free,” but are “the most safe and effective…tool available to law enforcement.”

Recognizing the Risks

The Reuters investigation found that many cases involved high-risk subjects, such as people affected by drug use or those with a mental condition. The other cases involved people with heart problems, those who are very young, very old or very weak.

At least half those who died after Taser shocks last year belonged to one of those groups. Also, 90 percent were unarmed and nearly 25 percent had mental issues.

As police officials have grown to understand the risk of Taser deaths, some have put new rules in place for using them, says Chuck Wexler. He is the head of the Police Executive Research Forum research group.

One of the country’s largest police departments, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, put new rules in place, said one official. It is waiting for approval from the city’s newly elected government.

In San Francisco, city government officials stopped the police department’s plan to buy Tasers.

Axon said it offers police departments training for Taser use. That includes special training for dealing with people who suffer from mental illness. The company also offers training to help police stop conflicts without using the Taser.

Worries in San Mateo

In San Mateo, the medical examiner’s office ruled the death of Ramzi Saad as a homicide. The office said Saad’s heart stopped after being restrained by police, who then used the Taser.

Police officers went to the home where Saad lived on August 13 after a neighbor saw him push his mother and called the police.

Saad had high blood pressure and other medical problems, as well as mental illness. Police used the Taser at least two times after Saad threatened an officer. He died at the hospital.

Saad’s Taser death was followed by two others.

Stephen Wagstaffe, the top lawyer for the county government, became worried, he told Reuters.

Wagstaffe said he asked his office “to come up with as much information as possible on Taser-related deaths.” The information will go to all of San Mateo County’s police departments “to help them in their judgment on the future use of Tasers,” he said.

I’m Dorothy Gundy. And I'm Susan Shand.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

Tasern. a gun that produces a small electric charge and makes the target unable to move for a short period

department n. a division or office of a large organization, such as a government or business

restrain – v. to hold a person’s body so they cannot move

moratorium – n. a period of time to think before coming to a decision

homicide – n. the legal term for one person killing another