Police and industry officials call them "nonlethal." But considering how many people die or are injured at the hands of police equipped with the latest nonlethal gear in the United States on a regular basis, it may be time to start rethinking that label.
Alternatives to deadly force, especially weapons like Taser International's eponymous stun guns, kill more Americans on a regular basis than police do with firearms in many other comparable countries.
In fact, data from Amnesty International and Inquest show police stun guns were linked to more deaths in the U.S. over the period 2001-2013 than the total number of fatal police shootings in England and Wales over the same time period.
It's a long-running problem: The stun gun is "seen as a comedy prop," Amnesty International attorney and deputy director of research Justin Mazzola told Mic, noting he doesn't "think there's a real understanding of just how lethal these weapons are. [Police] still need to have strict controls for how they're used, because there's adverse effects."
The use of stun guns like the Taser grew in response to a perceived need among law enforcement officials for a less lethal way of subduing criminal suspects. In a 1987 New York Times article, New York Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward said, "There is a great distance between the least alternative and the deadly physical force. We're trying to find this nondeadly physical force way of restraining a person." The paper noted the department had tried "electric dart guns, stun guns and high-pressure water cannons" and rejected tear gas and tranquilizer darts as too dangerous.
The next year, manufacturer Nova Technologies Inc. told the New York Times it expected to sell 150,000 units of direct-contact stun guns to civilians and law enforcement. A Nova brochure the paper quoted said since its models required the user to manually shock the target, it was "defensive in nature and impractical for offensive use." As far back as 1985, Nova president Conley Giles insisted the 50,000-volt devices his company sold "cannot cause physical harm."
Newer stun guns, however, offer police something decidedly more offensive.
By 2003, improved Taser International devices that fired electrical prongs into a target's body, also delivering 50,000 volts but from a distance, were being widely marketed as a nonlethal way for police officers to subdue suspects. The New York Times reported many departments were adopting the devices, citing impressive reductions in officer-involved shootings.
But they also kill: Time and study have shown the devices probably do result in many deaths, especially among the elderly, people with heart problems or individuals under the influence of drugs.
In its latest report on stun gun-related fatalities, covering the years 2001 to 2013, Amnesty International logged 540 incidents in which an individual was struck with a police stun gun and later died. Electronic Village, a blog that "seeks to look at events thru the perspective of Black people," claims the total count through October 2014 was more like 634. The Guardian's project "The Counted" lists 35 stun gun-related incidents so far in 2015, accounting for about 5% of the 683 police-linked deaths through Aug. 5.
"Tasers have been listed as a cause or contributory factor in more than 60 deaths," Amnesty International researchers wrote in the 2013 report, which seems to use the term "Taser" as a shorthand for all stun guns. "Most of those who died after being struck with a Taser were not armed and did not appear to pose a serious threat when the Taser was deployed."
A peer-reviewed scientific study by the American Heart Association in 2012 tied Taser use to fatal complications in eight cases, concluding "ECD stimulation can cause cardiac electrical capture and provoke cardiac arrest due to ventricular tachycardia/ventricular fibrillation."
Police are also increasingly stocking up on "impact munitions," better known as bean-bag rounds, another commonly used nonlethal weapon. These can also result in serious injury or death by breaking bones and causing internal bleeding. A 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice revealed out of 373 instances in which officers fired 969 impact rounds at individuals, eight died. Two others were killed when officers meant to fire impact rounds but instead used other munitions, and 26 more died when nonlethal options failed to subdue them and officers turned to lethal rounds.
Another 782 of the impact rounds caused injuries of varying severity, about 10.8% of which were serious lacerations, broken bones or penetration wounds.
But that study also noted in 93% of times in which impact munitions were used, officers did not have to fire lethal firearms.
Experts are concerned about a lack of regulation: Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska professor emeritus of criminal justice, told Mic via email that less-lethal weapons "were originally intended as a de-escalation tool, as a substitute for deadly force. But in many cases it became an add-on, substituting for a less serious form of physical force."
"When they first appeared, their danger was greatly underestimated," he added. "But after a number of highly publicized deaths, restrictive policies were put in place in many departments."
Amnesty International's Mazzola said officers may not understand impact rounds should not be fired at the eyes or face, and that stun guns specifically are often used not because an individual poses a threat, but rather because they are "resisting or being noncompliant in some way."
"These should be restricted to only those situations where an officer is protecting himself from violence," Mazzola said. "It's being used as a compliance tool ... We don't have any national guidelines with respect to the use of these weapons." According to Mazzola, when less-lethal weapons are used to force compliance on passively resisting individuals, their use could be construed as a form of torture.
Taser did not respond to a request for comment from Mic, but the company has long insisted — in the face of a series of lawsuits — their devices do not kill anyone. Experts on the company payroll, including spokesman Steve Tuttle, emergency room doctor Jeffrey Ho and Taser science advisory board member Mark Kroll have promoted the theory many deaths linked to stun guns are the result of "excited delirium." Excited delirium is a vaguely defined physiological condition those experts purport explains many instances in which people under emotional duress or the influence of drugs die after police use less-lethal weapons to take them down.
The official Taser website keeps a tally of "lives saved from potential death or serious injury" through the use of its devices, which currently stands at a generous 153,000 people.
"The bottom line is this. You have a lot of people who are acting psychotic, and often law enforcement is asked to deal with them. Some subgroup of this population is going to die, and we don't know why," Chicago surgeon, researcher and part-time police officer Andrew Dennis told Mother Jones. "This potential at-risk group is the quote-unquote excited delirium group. But there are no common threads to identify this at-risk group. As far as I'm concerned, everything discussed about excited delirium is conjecture."
Nonlethal weapons can be prone to abuse. Mazzola's insistence that the danger of stun guns, impact munitions and other less-lethal weapons comes down to when and why police are allowed to use them is backed up by many incidents.
The Hartford Courant recently reported "nearly half of the 15 stun gun-related deaths in Connecticut over the past decade" occurred in the two towns of New Britain and Meriden, both of which which have populations under 75,000. New Britain Police Chief James Wardwell told the paper he believed stringent new requirements on training and use would result in the elimination of the problem.
Leaving police to regulate themselves, however, poses its own problems.
"I've interviewed lots of police officers about their lives on the force," Donovan X. Ramsey, a fellow at progressive think tank Demos, told Mic via email. "What's clear to me from those conversations is that, within cop culture, use of force is sometimes not taken seriously. One reason for this is because officers deal with pretty grim scenarios regularly. As a result, they can develop a gallows humor that shocks civilians — and for good reason."
Aug. 6, 2015, 2:19 p.m.: This story has been updated.