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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.

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"Because of the criticism and the deaths, there's been a lot of people backing off of Tasers," says Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who studies police accountability. "The fact is, a lot of departments are taking some very positive, proactive steps to ensure accountability, and controlling Tasers is one of part of doing that," he says. But in other departments, he adds, "they're using it much too broadly and recklessly, where it isn't appropriate."

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The current Taser debate hinges on when, not if, the stun guns should be used. Few disagree with the use of Tasers as an alternative to deadly force, but in some departments, officers can employ Tasers when someone is simply refusing to obey an order.

Tasers are often most used when police officers are dealing with unruly people who themselves are unarmed, but whose failure to comply with police instructions make officers to feel threatened. Most departments use the "billy club policy," which holds that Tasers are appropriate in any situation where an officer would otherwise pull and be ready to use a billy club, or night stick, which tends to lead to more serious injuries than a Taser.

Taser opponents point to the public outrage over the tasering of a fan at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, and various lawsuits documenting officers using Tasers on subdued, non-aggressive, or even handcuffed people. Tasers "can be used too much and too often," the National Institute of Justice found in its May report.

At the same time, some law enforcement officials have pushed back against setting higher standards for Taser use.

"Police chiefs are saying, don't write the standards so that it's going to take away decision-making ... when I write my own policies," says John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, in Doylestown, Pa. "The argument that Tasers should only be used when the use of deadly force is authorized is asinine."

After releasing an advisory in 2009 urging police not to shoot suspects in the chest, Taser International is now marketing the old version of its gun, which allows for only a five second blast of current before officers have to make the decision to hit the suspect again. A newer version of the gun allowed officers to apply continuous current, which the NIJ said in a separate May report has been associated with deaths.

In all three cases from this weekend, the victims were acting erratically and, in at least one, in Manassas, Va., the man had already physically assaulted a police officer. But whether the occasions rose to a level where officers would have used deadly force is far from clear. None of the three men were armed.

In Kaukauna, Wisc., police responded to a report of a naked, out-of-control man running across a city bridge. When police reached him, the man appeared to be in the throes of a drug overdose, claiming he was covered in snakes. When he refused to comply with officers, a Taser was used to knock him down.

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