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Three deaths in one weekend puts Taser use by cops in crosshairs

Tasers were involved in three deaths over the weekend, renewing the debate over when and how the police-issued stun guns should be used.

By Staff writer / August 8, 2011

This 2007 file photo shows a British police officer holding a taser gun during a training session at the Metropolitan Police Specialist Training Centre, in Gravesend, Kent, in southeast England. Taser use by US cops has become widespread, but three Taser-related deaths in a weekend have prompted public outcry.

Carl de Souza / AFP / Newscom / File

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Atlanta

A naked man on drugs died in Wisconsin this weekend, after police used a Taser stun gun to subdue him. A student died at the University of Cincinnati after balling his fists and getting tasered by police. A man high on drugs in Manassas, Va., also died this weekend after police tasered him as he escaped, partially handcuffed, after punching an officer and a firefighter.

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All three deaths are being investigated. One of the departments, the University of Cincinnati Police Department, has suspended the use of Tasers by its officers.

About 15,000 US police departments, including 29 of the nation's 33 largest cities, use a total of 260,000 Tasers. The devices have been the objects of controversy since first being deployed broadly in the 1990s. Some describe them as an alternative to the nightstick that reduces officer injuries and saves lives. Others see the stun guns as instruments of torture whose growing use make them a symbol of reckless policing.

In some cases, the Tasers are only tangentially related or unrelated to the actual cause of death, and that may be the case in the three incidents from this weekend. But recent studies have shown that the weapons can have an outsized impact on people with health problems or who are very high on drugs and in a state of "excited delirium."

Tasers contributed to some 351 US deaths between 2001 and 2008, says Amnesty International, which adds that 90 percent of those tasered were unarmed at the time they were electrocuted. The website Truth Not Tasers claims that 39 people have died in relation to "conducted energy devices (CEDs)" this year in the United States, an average of five per month.

On the other hand, 99.7 percent of people who are tasered suffer no serious injuries, according to a May report from the National Institute of Justice. "The risk of human death due directly or primarily to the electrical effects of CED application has not been conclusively demonstrated," says the report.

A growing number of police departments have begun to limit Taser use, imposing stricter policies for use or even taking the instruments out of officers' hands. Memphis, San Francisco, and Las Vegas police departments have all opted out of Taser use recently, amid growing questions about the level of threat necessary to justify electrocuting someone with 50,000 volts delivered through barbed bolts.

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