Tasers and stun guns have had a controversial history ever since police began using them in the 1970s. Today, they are used by more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies.
Amnesty International, an opponent of the weapons, collects national statistics on Taser deaths. Since 2001, the group says 550 people have died after being zapped by a police Taser in the United States. Most of those subjects were neither armed, nor posed a serious threat.
Despite the high death toll, coroners and medical examiners have blamed only about 50 of those deaths directly or indirectly on the stun gun. In most cases, the cause of death is usually ruled the result of a pre-existing heart condition or the existence of narcotics in the person’s system.
Israel Hernandez-Llach, the 18-year-old street artist who was Tasered by Miami Beach police on Aug. 6 after he was caught tagging a shuttered McDonald’s, was the first stun-gun-related fatality in the department’s history, Chief Raymond Martinez said.
‘IT’S STILL A CRIME’
Martinez said that the officer who chased and Tasered Hernandez-Llach, Jorge Mercado, followed department policy. Under its use of force procedures, officers may use a stun gun when a person “is not in the physical control of the officer, yet poses a threat.”
“They were gonna place someone under arrest for a crime,” Martinez told reporters after the shooting. “Even though it was only graffiti, it’s still a crime. The subject ran from them. Now he’s eluding police. It’s resisting arrest, if you will. There were several times that Mr. Hernandez had the opportunity to give himself up.”
Martinez said Mercado believed that Hernandez-Llach, who was running toward him, was a threat — even though the teen was not armed.
All six officers who were there the day Hernandez died have been questioned, as have other witnesses. Their accounts, along with the teen’s autopsy and toxicology results, will be included in the pending death investigation, which is being conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Autopsies linking death to police use of Tasers are low compared to the number of times other weapons are used in law enforcement, a factor that Taser International says bears out the claim that the stun guns pose less risk than firearms and are safer for police than physically restraining a suspect.
“It’s a controversial subject any time a tragic death occurs,” said Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International. “I’m a parent, I feel for his parents,” he said referring to Israel’s family. “But we have to wait for the science and the facts to come out.”
In 2009, Taser International issued a rare warning about the weapon, cautioning police to avoid striking subjects in the chest. The warning came amid medical evidence that shots to the chest could induce cardiac arrest in some people.
Tuttle said the warning was just that, a warning. “It’s not a ‘shall not’ — it’s simply a best practices to avoid the chest when possible.”
BULLETS VS. VOLTS
More recently, some studies and medical experts are exploring the presence of high levels of adrenaline that often exist when a subject is chased or has some other confrontation with police, causing the heart to beat faster and harder.
“These devices can be dangerous. Anytime you shoot an electric current into someone there is a potential for harm,” said Dr. Joel Strom, a clinical adjunct professor of cardiology at the University of Florida-Jacksonville.
“The data is clear that they are not totally safe. Is it safer than a bullet, probably yes. Is it entirely safe? No.’’