A Reminder that Tasers Are Not Toys


Back in February, a woman named Natasha McKenna died as a result of injuries sustained while she was being transferred from confinement in Fairfax County to a psychiatric hospital. The woman had been in custody for seven days and thus was not under the influence of any drugs, but she displayed clear signs of mental illness and had reportedly attacked deputies while in custody.

During the course of her transfer, which was effectuated by what appear to be eight perfectly healthy adult males, Natasha McKenna was, for some reason, tased four times. As a result of this repeated tasing, McKenna lost consciousness and was declared dead four days later.

In perhaps the least suprising development this year, the sheriff’s deputies in question will not be charged criminally. However, the Sheriff’s office has released the video in question, and you can watch it yourself and make your own judgments. WARNING: this video is very graphic:


I think what is shown on this video is the clear result of poor training rather than any active malice on the deputies’ part. This is probably the most inept and ineffectual job I have ever seen anyone make of securing anyone. I see no evidence that the woman in question possessed any “superhuman strength” (the deputies’ excuse for why they allegedly had to tase her so frequently), just an insistence that any time the woman twitched, everyone stopped what they were doing in terms of actually getting the restraints on her.

A few things stick out at me about this video. First, the woman clearly does not have a clear understanding of what is happening to and around her, which makes the repeated commands and warnings of the voice you hear on camera saying “stop resisting!” (while, mind you, she was being held down by four men in what looks like suits from the set of The Walking Dead) to be almost downright comical.

Second, you see evidence of what many criminal justice reform advocates have been saying for years – that police do not take the danger presented by tasers to the victims of tasing seriously. They are treated all too often like an owner might treat a shock collar on a dog if the dog was barking too often or something. In reality, both the current carried by the taser and the cartridge itself can very easily cause serious injury or death, and tasers accordingly shouldn’t be used in an situation in which lethal force would not be justified. They are not a crowd control device or a means of eliminating unruliness, or a way for police to create docility in suspects.

Too often, police are given insufficient hand-to-hand combat training or training in how to subdue unarmed suspects who nonetheless require force to subdue without the use of a firearm or taser. So, as a consequence, when they feel threatened, they tend to immediately pull out the taser and pull the trigger, thinking that they are utilizing a consequence-free way to calm someone down. In reality, every time a taser is used, it puts someone’s life in danger and this is especially true when multiple shocks are used on the same subject.

A significant body of research has now been conducted which shows both a) that tasers are drastically overused by modern police departments, and b) they are much more dangerous than initially believed:

On Tuesday, the Miami New Times published the results of a yearlong investigation into the lethal misuse of Tasers by three of Miami’s police departments. The wide-sweeping piece describes how police officers often use Tasers in instances where there is no arrest taking place, and where the victims of tasering pose no physical danger. The cops taser the homeless to get them to leave an area, they taser the mentally ill who aren’t understanding their instructions, and they even once tasered a six-year-old who was having a tantrum in kindergarten.

“In less than eight years, Miami Police, Miami-Dade Police, and Miami Beach Police officers have used their Tasers more than 3,000 times,” Michael E. Miller writes. “At least 11 men have died after being tasered by cops during that same period, including five in the past 16 months.”

These “less lethal” weapons are used in over 17,000 American law enforcement agencies, and are deployed, on average, 904 times every day.

Taser International, which also happens to manufacture the body cameras that police departments are now buying in bulk (and experiencing a huge windfallbecause of it), responded to Miller’s piece in writing. A company spokesman argued that Tasers reduce the risk of injury to both suspects and police—cops use Tasers so they won’t have to use guns, essentially—but he also pointed out that the company now describes Tasers as “less lethal,” rather than “non lethal” weapons.

The impact of a Taser shock depends a lot on the overall health of the person being shocked, what substances may be in his or her body at the time, and how long the shock lasts. Often, when a person dies after being tasered, the autopsy will find a pre-existing heart condition, or the cause of death will be listed as a drug overdose. But many studies have looked at what makes Tasers so dangerous all on their own. A 2012 article in the journal Circulation showed how electrical shocks from Tasers can cause irregular heart rhythms, and, in some cases, send people into cardiac arrest. (Another Circulation article this year backed up that conclusion.)

There are other effects of a Taser shock that, while not lethal, still cause problems. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminologyby a group of criminologists from Arizona State University and Drexel University compared the cognitive abilities of new police recruits before and after they were tasered during training. The recruits took a battery of tests—measuring memory, learning, and coordination—three hours before being tasered, and then five minutes afterward, and again 24 hours later.

The researchers found that, five minutes after being shocked, the recruits suffered “statistically significant reductions in several measures of cognitive functioning.” (That study was funded by the National Institute of Justice. Taser International had funded its own study a year earlier, which found that, while tasering does impair “neurocognitive” functioning, the impact only lasts about an hour.)

The cops taser the homeless to get them to leave an area, they taser the mentally ill who aren’t understanding their instructions, and they even once tasered a six-year-old who was having a tantrum in kindergarten.

Read, as they say, the whole thing.

And consider the import of these findings – if a mentally ill person like McKenna is having trouble understanding and following directions to begin with, consider whether tasing her is likely to make this problem better or worse?

I don’t know whether these deputies in question should face criminal charges for what happened here. But I do know that police nationwide need to display far more caution than they currently do when using tasers, and need to be instructed on the dangers they pose.

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