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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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At the University of Cincinnati, a recent high school graduate, at the university for college-preparatory summer classes, was approaching the police with an "altered mental status" and balled fists when he was brought down with a Taser. The University of Cincinnati Police Department has suspended the use of Tasers as it investigates the case. One newspaper account said the officer who fired the Taser was "very distraught" by the young man's death.

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Some police departments, including Kansas City, Seattle, and Madison, Wisc., have begun publishing their Taser policies on their public websites, in an effort to increase transparency and respond to public concerns. None of the three police departments involved in this weekend's incidents publish their policies on Taser use, with one – Prince William County – citing "tactical concerns." Calls to the other two departments were not returned by the time this story was posted.

"This is a very important point of accountability that goes beyond Tasers, a form of openness and transparency," says Professor Walker.

Some battles over Tasers have played out in the courts.

"Tasers and stun guns fall into the category of non-lethal force; non-lethal, however, is not synonymous with non-excessive force," ruled the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2009. "All force – lethal or non-lethal – must be justified by the need for the specific level of force employed."

In July, a North Carolina jury returned a $10 million verdict against Taser International, the maker of the stun guns, for the 2008 death of a 17-year-old in Charlotte, N.C., ruling that company failed to provide police with adequate warnings or instruction. Taser International plans an appeal.

The day of the North Carolina verdict, another Charlotte man died in a Taser-related incident, prompting that city's police department – considered one of the most professional in the nation – to impose a 45-day suspension on the use of the weapons, to review their polices.

"My personal opinion is that when departments become restrictive and take away a tool, it's generally because they're afraid of some sort of public pressure coming from a certain segment of society," says Mr. Gnagey. When public pressure does succeed in restricting or banning Tasers, he adds, "Later on, when things die down, we'll just quietly introduce it back into the population."

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