Are stun guns too deadly? Louisiana case adds to debate.
A grand jury will decide whether to bring murder charges against a police officer.
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"We're seeing injuries that wouldn't normally happen on a routine traffic stop, and all of a sudden they're happening," says Mr. Luka.Skip to next paragraph
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The American Civil Liberties Union has not called for a ban on devices such as Tasers. But in the light of studies that show potential health effects of getting jolted and a general lack of training, national standards, and federal oversight, the ACLU says the devices have created a troubling gray area for US civil rights.
"The Taser in many cases is going to be safe, but it's those other cases, which actually are prevalent in the population that police interact with, that we have a lot of concerns about," says Mark Schlosberg, an electroshock-weapons expert with the ACLU in San Francisco.
A federal National Institute of Justice study released in June drew this conclusion on devices such as Tasers: "Although exposure ... is not risk free, there is no conclusive medical evidence within the state of current medical research that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of CED [conducted-energy device] exposure."
Still, the public shows signs of souring on the devices. Seven states have banned their use, and some police departments are reevaluating their stun-gun policies, specifically to wait for an imminent threat of physical violence before resorting to their use and to restrict officers to fewer than three jolts before moving on to hand-to-hand restraint. But for many police departments, critics say, electroshock weapons are routinely and increasingly deployed in a variety of situations, with plenty of room for questionable improvisation.
"Police sometimes do things they're not supposed to do, and if you put the temptation in front of them, if you tell 100 police officers that, 'Here's your Tasers, and you're not supposed to use them to punish,' someone is going to use them to punish. It's predictable," says Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner for the New York State Police.
The Winnfield Parish case is likely to test all those aspects, highlighting racial tensions between blacks and police evident in many parts of the US. Roughly corresponding to overall crime data, 46 percent of the people who died in stun-gun-related incidents were black and 36 percent were white.
Winnfield Parish, birthplace of famed Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, has a long history of police corruption. The officer who administered the Taser to Pikes, Scott Nugent, was a rookie cop hired by a police chief who served time on a drug charge but was pardoned by former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who himself is now in federal prison.
A first cousin of Mychal Bell – the main defendant in the Jena 6 case that last year sparked the century's largest civil rights march – Pikes at the time of his arrest, on an outstanding warrant, struggled with police and then fell sick, complaining of asthma and the effects of PCP, police said after his death. But bystanders said Pikes, who knew the officers, pleaded with them, "Don't tase me again, please."
The Police Department has admitted no wrongdoing, though the City Council fired Nugent in May. The medical examiner is risking his relationship with the police department by listing the death as a homicide, but his autopsy was sound, according to Mr. Baden, who reviewed the findings.
"This is a major case," says Carol Powell-Lexing, a lawyer representing Pikes's family. "It's significant in the sense it shows how this young officer exceeded his authority and use of force, and it shows how dangerous those Tasers are. The community won't rest until they see appropriate relief in regards to this situation."
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