Every time someone dies in police custody after being zapped with a Taser, fresh questions arise about their safety, says the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The devices, which fire stun-producing darts to subdue suspects, have been criticized by humanitarian and civil rights groups because of 290 deaths associated with them. Yet, police across the U.S. increasingly are equipping themselves with Tasers, and supporters of the weapons say many more lives have been saved because officers avoided firing bullets. The death of a man Tuesday after being shot with a Taser after a traffic accident on an interstate highway has brought the issue back to Minnesota.
Bill Lewinski, director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University, Mankato, which studies police use of force, expressed doubt that Tasers are causing so many deaths. However, he said, the safety question should have been settled long ago through independent, government-supported research. Much of the safety research on the Tasers has been supported by the manufacturer. “For the decade or more that Tasers have been involved in this controversy, why hasn’t the federal government stepped in?” he asked. If the same number of deaths were linked to a drug or medical device, federal agencies would have acted promptly, he said. The U.S. National Institute of Justice has commissioned studies over the past few years to gauge the safety of the devices, said spokesman Evan Peterson. In October, the first such study was released. Researchers led by Dr. William Bozeman of Wake Forest University examined nearly 1,000 cases of Taser use by police, and found only a small number of injuries and two deaths attributed to other causes. Other federal studies are expected in the coming months, Peterson said.