The untold story of Taser-related deaths
Taser International Inc. maintains that its stun guns are “changing the world and saving lives everyday.” There is no question that they changed Jack Wilson’s life. On Aug. 4, in Lafayette, Colo., policemen on a stakeout approached Jack’s son Ryan Wilson as he entered a field of a dozen young marijuana plants. When Ryan took off running, officer John Harris pursued the 22-year-old for a half-mile and then shot him once with an X-26 Taser. Ryan fell to the ground and began to convulse. The officer attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but Ryan died.
According to his family and friends, Ryan was in very good physical shape. The county coroner found no evidence of alcohol or drugs in his system and ruled that Ryan’s death could be attributed to the Taser shock, physical exertion from the chase and the fact that one of his heart arteries was unusually small.
In October, an internal investigation cleared Harris of any wrongdoing and concluded that he had used appropriate force.
Wilson says that although his son had had brushes with the law as a juvenile and struggled financially, he was a gentle and sensitive young man who always looked out for his disabled younger brother’s welfare, and was trying to better his job prospects by becoming a plumber’s apprentice.
“Ryan was not a defiant kid,” says his father. “I don’t understand why the cop would chase him for a half-mile and then ‘Tase’ him while he had an elevated heart rate. If [the officer] hadn’t done that, we know that he would still be alive today.”
Ryan is one of nearly 200 people who have died in the last five years after being shot with Taser stun guns. In June, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would review these deaths.
Over the same period, Taser has developed a near-monopoly in the market for nonlethal weaponry. Increasingly, law enforcement officials use such weapons to subdue society’s most vulnerable members: prisoners, drug addicts and the mentally ill, along with “passive resisters,” such as the protesters demonstrating against Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s attendance of a Pittsburgh fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum on Oct. 9.
Taser has built this monopoly through influence-peddling, savvy public relations, and the hiring of former law-enforcement and military officers, including onetime Homeland Security chief hopeful Bernard Kerik. And now that questions are being raised about the safety of Taser weaponry, the company is fighting back with legal and marketing campaigns.
BIRTH OF A TASER
In 1974, a NASA scientist named Jack Cover invented the first stun gun, which he named the TASER, or “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle,” after Tom Swift, a fictional young inventor who was the hero of a series of early-20th-century adventure novels. Because it relied on gunpowder, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms classified the Taser as a registered firearm.
That changed in the early ’90s. According to Taser’s corporate creation story, co-founder Rick Smith became interested in the device after friends of his “were brutally murdered by an angry motorist.” Smith contacted Cover in the hopes of bringing the Taser as a self-defense weapon to a larger market. In 1993, with money from Smith’s brother Tom, they created Air Taser Inc., which would later become Taser International Inc. When Tasers were reengineered to work with a nitrogen propellant rather than gunpowder, the weapon was no longer categorized as a firearm. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department adopted the guns, but they were not widely embraced by other departments.
Taser’s fortunes improved in 1998, after the company embarked on a new development program, named “Project Stealth.” The goal was to streamline stun-gun design and deliver enough voltage to stop “extremely combative, violent individuals,” especially those who couldn’t be controlled with the use of nonlethal chemicals such as Mace.
From Project Stealth the Advanced Taser was born. When the weapon premiered in 2000 — a model eventually redesigned as the M-26 — the company brought on a cadre of active and retired military and law-enforcement personnel to vouch for the weapon’s efficacy. The new spokespersons ranged from Arizona SWAT members to a former chief instructor of hand-to-hand combat for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Taser began to showcase the Advanced Taser at technology-related conventions throughout North America and Europe, billing it as a nonlethal weapon that could take down even the toughest adversary. Soon to be among those “dangerous” opponents were the protesters assembling in Philadelphia for the 2000 Republican National Convention.
By the next year, 750 law-enforcement agencies had either tested or deployed the weapon. Today, more than 9,500 law-enforcement, correctional, and military agencies in 43 countries use Taser weaponry. In the past eight years, more than 184,000 Tasers have been sold to law-enforcement agencies, including Springfield and Sangamon County, as well as another 115,000 to citizens in the 43 states where it is legal to possess a stun gun.
Taser stun guns are designed to shoot a maximum of 50,000 volts into a person’s body through two compressed-nitrogen-fueled probes, thereby disrupting the target’s electromuscular system. The probes, connected to the Taser gun by insulated wires, can deliver repeat shocks in quick succession. They can pierce clothing and skin from a distance or be directly applied to a person’s body for an ostensibly less incapacitating cattle-prod effect.
“The impetus for Tasers came from the often community-led search for ‘less than lethal’ police weapons,” says Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department and author of Breaking Rank. “[There were] too many questionable or bad police shootings and cops saying, correctly, that there are many ambiguous situations where a moment’s hesitation could lead to their own deaths or the death of an innocent other.”
According to Taser’s promotional materials, its stun guns are designed to “temporarily override the nervous system [and take] over muscular control.” People who have experienced the effect of a Taser typically liken it to a debilitating full-body seizure, complete with mental disorientation and loss of control over bodily functions.
Many Taser-associated deaths have been written up by coroners as being attributable to “excited delirium,” a condition that includes frenzied or aggressive behavior, rapid heart rate, and aggravating factors related to an acute mental state or drug-related psychosis. When such suspects are stunned, especially while already being held down or hogtied, deaths seem to occur after a period of “sudden tranquility,” as Taser explains in its CD-ROM training material titled “Sudden Custody Death: Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong.” In that same material, the company warns officers to “try to minimize the appearance of mishandling suspects.”
Taser did not respond to requests for an interview, but its press and business-related statements have consistently echoed the company’s official position: “Taser devices use proprietary technology to quickly incapacitate dangerous, combative or high-risk subjects who pose a risk to law enforcement officers, innocent citizens or themselves.” Another brochure, specifically designed for law enforcement, clearly states that the X26 has “no after effects.”
Ryan Wilson’s family can attest otherwise, as can many others.
CASUALTIES AND CRUELTIES
In the span of three months — July, August, and September — Wilson’s Taser-related death was only one among several. Larry Noles, 52, died after being stunned three times on his body (and finally on his neck) after walking around naked and “behaving erratically.” An autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in his system. Mark L. Lee, 30, who had an inoperable brain tumor, was having a seizure when a Rochester, N.Y., police officer stunned him. In Cookeville, Ala., 31-year-old Jason Dockery was stunned because, police maintain, he was being combative while on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Family members believe he was having an aneurysm. And Nickolos Cyrus, a 29-year-old man with diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, was shocked 12 times with a Taser stun gun after a Mukwonago, Wis., police officer caught him trespassing on a home under construction. An inquest jury has already ruled that the officer who shot Cyrus — who was delusional and naked from the waist down when he was stunned — was within his rights to act as he did.
Although the company spins it otherwise, Taser-associated deaths are definitely on the rise. In 2001, Amnesty International documented three Taser-associated deaths. The number has steadily increased each year, peaking at 61 in 2005. So far almost 50 deaths have occurred in 2006, for an approximate total of 200 deaths in the last five years.
Amnesty International and other human-rights groups have also drawn attention to the use of Tasers on captive populations in hospitals, jails, and prisons.
In fact, the first field tests relating to the efficacy of the Advanced Taser model in North America were conducted on incarcerated men. In December 1999, the weapon was used, with “success,” against a Clackamas County (Ore.) Jail inmate. The next year, the Victoria Police deployed the Advanced Taser — in its first Canadian use — against an inmate in psychiatric lockdown. Since that time, Taser deployment in jails and prisons has become increasingly commonplace, raising concerns about violations of 8th Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.
This summer, the ACLU of Colorado filed a class-action suit on behalf of prisoners in the Garfield County Jail, where jail staffers have allegedly used Tasers and electroshock belts, restraint chairs, pepper spray, and pepperball guns as methods of torture. According to Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado, inmates have told him that Tasers are pulled out and “displayed” by officers on a daily basis, either as a form of intimidation and threat compliance or to shock the inmates for disobeying orders.
A recent report from the ACLU’s National Prison Project, “Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” concerns the plight of the estimated 6,500 New Orleans prisoners left to fend for themselves in the days after the monumental New Orleans flood. The NPP’s Tom Jawetz says that the organization has been looking into abuses at Orleans Parish Prison since 1999 but notes that the incidents that took place in jails and prisons in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were unprecedented.
Take the case of New Orleans resident Ivy Gisclair. Held at OPP for unpaid parking tickets, Gisclair was about to be released on his own recognizance when Hurricane Katrina hit. After languishing with thousands of other prisoners in a flooded jail, Gisclair was sent to the Bossier Parish Maximum Security Prison. Once there, Gisclair apparently had the nerve to inquire about being held past his release date. Gisclair has testified that he was then restrained and stunned repeatedly with a Taser, before being thrown, naked and unconscious, into solitary confinement.
“I can’t imagine any justification for that,” says Jawetz says. “[Prison guards] were kicking, beating, and ‘Tasing’ him until he lost consciousness. A line was crossed that should never have been crossed.”
In March, Reuben Heath, a handcuffed and subdued Montana inmate, was shocked while lying prone in his bed. The deputy involved — a onetime candidate for sheriff — now faces felony charges.
Gisclair and Heath are among the inmates who have survived in-custody incidents involving the abuse of Tasers. Others haven’t been as fortunate. This year alone, those who have died in custody in the aftermath of being stunned by Tasers include Arapahoe County Jail, Colo., inmate Raul Gallegos-Reyes, 34, who was strapped to a restraint chair and stunned; Jerry Preyer, 45, who suffered from a severe mental illness in an Escambia County, Fla., jail and was shocked twice by a Taser; and Karl Marshall, 32, who died in Kansas City police custody two hours after he was stunned while he had PCP and crack cocaine in his system.
“We are seeing far too many cases where Tasers are not being used for their intended purposes,” says Sheley Secrest, president of the NAACP’s Seattle chapter, “and many of these cases don’t end up getting reported or properly investigated because people are so humiliated by the experience.”
Former U.S. Marshal Matthew Fogg, a longtime SWAT specialist and vice president of Blacks in Government, says that if stun guns are going to be used by law enforcement, training on their use should be extensive. He also says that the weapons should also be placed high up on what police officers call the “use-of-force continuum.”
Fogg isn’t alone in calling for such measures. In October 2005, the Police Executive Research Forum, an influential police research and advocacy group, recommended that law enforcement only be allowed to use Tasers on people who are aggressively resisting arrest. The organization also recommended that law-enforcement officers step back and evaluate the condition of a suspect after one shock. Similar recommendations were included in an April 2005 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. That report also urged police departments to determine whether certain vulnerable groups — including the mentally ill — should be excluded altogether from being shot with Tasers.
Although Fogg’s organization has called for an outright ban on Tasers until further research can be conducted, Fogg says he knows that responsible members of law enforcement are perfectly capable of using the weapons effectively. Officers who are willing to put their lives on the line for the sake of the community, he emphasizes, must be given the tools and training to minimize harm to themselves and to others.
Fogg, who also serves on the board of Amnesty International USA, says that too many members of law enforcement seem to be using Tasers as compliance mechanisms. “It’s something along the lines of ‘If I don’t like you, I can torture you,’ ” he says.
Some law-enforcement agencies have already implemented careful-use policies, including the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which selectively hands out Tasers to carefully trained deputies. The department also prohibits use of Tasers on subjects already “under control.” According to Sheriff Michael Hennessey, deputies are not allowed to use stun guns in response to minor ineffectual threats, as a form of punishment, or on juveniles or pregnant women. Every use of the weapon in a jail facility must be videotaped.
“I authorize Tasers to be used on people who are at high risk of hurting themselves or deputies,” Hennessey says. “Without options like these, the inmate and the deputies are much more likely to get seriously hurt.”
But when stun guns are used on people who don’t fit that criteria, Secrest says, the public should be asking serious questions about the efficacy of Taser use, particularly because of the emotional trauma related to Taser-related takedowns.
“When a person comes into our office after they’ve been [Tased], it’s not as much the physical pain they talk about as much as the humiliation, the disrespect,” she says. “The people [who are stunned by these guns] talk about not being able to move and thinking that they were going to die.”
As for actual Taser-associated deaths, Secrest believes that they should be investigated just as thoroughly as deaths involving firearms. Instead, Taser injuries and deaths are typically justified because officers report that the suspect was resisting arrest.
“That’s the magic word: ‘resisted,’ ” Secrest says. “Any kind of police-oversight investigation tends to end right there.”
CAPITALIZING ON 9/11
Despite these concerns, Taser International Inc. has thrived. The 9/11 terrorist attacks sent the company’s profits soaring. Many domestic and international airlines — as well a variety of major law-enforcement agencies — were eager to acquire a new arsenal. Homeland-security money flooded into both state and federal-level departments, many of which were gung-ho to acquire high-tech gadgets.
In 2002, Taser brought on Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner, as the company’s director. Kerik had attained popularity in the wake of 9/11 as a law-and-order-minded hero; the company had seemingly picked one of the best spokespersons imaginable.
With Kerik’s help, company profits grew to $68 million in 2004, up from just under $7 million in 2001, and stockholders — including the Smith family, who raked in $91.5 million in just one fiscal quarter in 2004 — were able to cash in.
Unbeknownst to most stockholders, however, sales have been helped along by police officers who have received payments, stock options, or both from Taser to serve as instructors and trainers. (The exact number of officers on the payroll is unknown because the company declines to identify active-duty officers who have received stock options.)
The recruitment of law enforcement has been crucial to fostering market penetration. For instance, Sgt. Jim Halsted of the Chandler (Ariz.) Police Department, joined Taser president Rick Smith in making a presentation to the Chandler City Council in March 2003. He made the case for arming the entire police patrol squad with M-26 Tasers. According to the Associated Press, Halsted said, “No deaths are attributed to the M-26 at all.” The council approved a $193,000 deal later that day.
As it turned out, Halsted was already being rewarded with Taser stock options as a member of the company’s “Master Instructor Board.” Two months after the sale, Halsted became Taser’s Southwest regional sales manager.
In addition, Taser has developed a potent gimmick to sell its futuristic line of weapons. In 2003, Taser premiered the X-26. According to Taser’s promotional materials, the X-26 features an enhanced dataport to help “save officer’s careers from false allegations” by recording discharge date and time; number, duration, and date of discharges; and the optional ability to record the event with the Taser webcam. The X-26 also boasts a more powerful incapacitation rating of 105 “Muscular Disruption Units,” up from 100 MDUs for the M-26.
The X-26 is apparently far more pleasing to the eye. As Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle told a law-enforcement trade journal, “It’s a much sexier-looking product.”
LAWSUITS JOLT TASER
As increasing numbers of police departments obtained Taser stun guns, the weapons started to be deployed against civilians with greater frequency.
Many of the civilian Taser-associated incidents have resulted in lawsuits, most of which have either been dismissed or settled out of court — but there have been a few exceptions.
In late September, Kevin Alexander, 29, was awarded $82,500 to settle a federal excessive-force lawsuit after being shocked 17 times with a Taser by a New Orleans Parish police officer. The department’s explanation: The shocks were intended to make him cough up drugs he had allegedly swallowed.
One recently settled Colorado case involved Christopher Nielsen, 37, who was “acting strangely” and was not responsive to police orders after crashing his car. For his disobedience, he was stunned five times. When it was revealed that Nielsen was suffering from seizures, the county settled the case for $90,000.
An Akron, Ohio, man also recently accepted a $35,000 city settlement. One day in May 2005, he went into diabetic shock, and police found him slumped over his steering wheel. Two officers proceeded to physically beat, Mace, and Taser him after he did not respond to orders to get out of the car.
Taser’s lack of response to the misuse of the company’s weapons is troubling. The company relentlessly puts a positive spin on Taser use, most recently with a “The Truth is Undeniable” Web-ad campaign, which contrasts mock courtroom scenes with the fictionalized violent antics of civilians that prompt police to stun them.
The campaign involves print ads, direct-mail DVDs, and online commercials that “draw attention to a rampant problem in this country: false allegations against law enforcement officers,” according to Steve Ward, Taser’s vice president of marketing.
The lawsuits have scared off some investors, making Taser’s stock extremely volatile over the years, but press coverage of the company this past summer largely centered around Taser’s “successes” in the courtroom. In addition to settling a $21.8 million shareholder lawsuit revolving around allegations that the company had exaggerated the safety of its product (Taser International admitted no wrongdoing), Taser has triumphed in more than 20 liability dismissals and judgments in favor of the company. And the company’s finances are on the upswing: Third-quarter 2006 revenues increased by nearly 60 percent.
Regardless, CEO Rick Smith claims that his company is the target of a witch hunt. “We’re waiting for people to dunk me in water and see if I float,” is how he put it during a March 2005 debate with William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Last year, with 40 new lawsuits filed against it, Taser dedicated $7 million in its budget to defending the company’s reputation and “brand equity.” The company has also gone on the offensive, hiring two full-time in-house litigators.
At one point, Taser hinted that it might sue Amnesty International for taking a critical position regarding Taser-associated injuries and deaths. In November 2004 Smith announced that the company’s legal team had begun a “comprehensive review of AI’s disparaging and unsupported public statements [to] advise me as to various means to protect our company’s good name.”
In one of the company’s brashest legal maneuvers to date, Taser sued Gannett Co. Inc. for libel in 2005. The lawsuit alleged that USA Today, Gannett’s flagship newspaper, “sensationalized” the power of Taser guns by inaccurately reporting that the electrical output of the gun was more than 100 times that of the electric chair. This past January, a judge threw the case out, saying that the error in the article was not malicious and that the story was protected by the First Amendment.
The company remains unwavering and aggressively protective, even as the number of Taser-associated deaths mounts. As Smith told the Associated Press in February, “If you’re coming to sue Taser, bring your game face, strap it on and let’s go. We’re gonna win.”
From Jack Wilson’s standpoint, citizens are the real losers. His son Ryan lost his life in a situation that could have been handled in any number of other ways, and no amount of legal posturing can bring him back.
“I still can’t believe my son is gone,” he says. “The fact is that these Tasers can be lethal. No matter how they’re categorized, Tasers shouldn’t be treated as toys.”
A version of this story was first published in In These Times. David Burnett and the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund provided research support and assistance.