Are stun guns too deadly? Louisiana case adds to debate.
A grand jury will decide whether to bring murder charges against a police officer.
A grand jury in rural Louisiana considers Tuesday whether to bring murder charges against a Taser-wielding police officer in what may become a seminal case in the hotly debated history of stun guns.Skip to next paragraph
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No US jury has ever convicted a police officer in connection with a death related to use of an electroshock weapon. But the number of deaths in which the guns have played a role has been growing, along with their use in law enforcement agencies.
Now, the coroner in Winnfield, La., has found the death of one Baron "Scooter" Pikes to be homicide by Taser, intensifying a simmering controversy over the devices and exposing the tense tug of war between police and young black men in rural Louisiana.
After Winnfield Parish police took Mr. Pikes, who is black, into custody one January morning, a white police officer fired a Taser, jolting Pikes nine times in the span of 14 minutes. Pikes never woke up.
Police said the 21-year-old Pikes was on drugs and uncooperative, but coroner Randolph Williams took a different view. In a report last month, he said he found no signs of a physical struggle, of drugs, or of any medical condition that could have exacerbated the jolts' effect.
As police departments across the US look for nonlethal ways to subdue out-of-control people, a big question is whether such devices reduce violence or, in effect, can increase the likelihood of violence, even torture. The Pikes death is just one case, but it appears to show that the combination of simmering racial tensions and insufficient police training can be lethal when injected with a 50,000-volt jolt.
"If the Taser was indeed the cause of death, this could be an interesting case," says Andrew Scott, former police chief of Boca Raton, Fla., who has testified on the behalf of officers in stun-gun cases. "Given the historical corruption of law enforcement in the area, and the fact that the young man was tased nine times, something is definitely wrong with this picture."
Two-thirds of all police departments in the US own at least one electroshock weapon. The guns have played a role in nearly 300 deaths in the US and Canada since their introduction in 1998, Amnesty International reported in June. Yet most wrongful-death lawsuits have gone the Taser's way, with juries finding that factors ranging from hard drugs in a person's system to existing medical conditions were responsible for or contributed to their deaths.
The weapons, also called electronic control devices, are part of a transformation in policing, away from bullets and guns and toward "Star Trek"-like devices that can, from a law-enforcement standpoint, safely and quickly defuse volatile situations.
"We didn't get this [negative] reaction when nightsticks were used to split heads open, but because of the technology and what it does, the media have really exacerbated the issue of the Taser," says Mr. Scott. "The upside of the Taser far outweighs the unfortunate abuse or downside."
But with some 260,000 units in the hands of law enforcement officials, and with no major federal regulation governing their use, stun-gun use in cases like the one in Louisiana is revealing unintended drawbacks of this particular tool of policing, says Thomas Luka, a defense attorney in Orlando, Fla. Used most often before officers are physically threatened, the devices are changing the relationship between police and the populace, especially on the streets.
Use of stun guns widening
•More than 13,000 law enforcement, correctional, and military agencies in 44 countries deploy Tasers. Of this, some 4,700 agencies deploy Taser ECDs to all of their patrol officers.
•More than 359,000 Taser brand devices have been sold to law enforcement since February 1998.
•More than 176,000 T brand devices have been sold to citizens since 1994 (legal in 43 states).
•At least 276 people have died in the United States since June 2001 after being shocked with stun guns, according to Amnesty International.
Sources: Taser International, Amnesty International