This week, Reuters published a lengthy three part series on deaths linked to police use of Tasers, the “less lethal” stun gun weapons that have become ubiquitous among law enforcement agencies in the United States over the past two decades or so. While the series, “Shock Tactics” is worth reading in its entirety, for those who might have an interest in the topic but lack the time or inclination to read 16,000 words about mentally unstable people getting electrocuted to death, here’s a brief overview:
- Reuters documented over 1,000 cases in the U.S. “in which people died after police stunned them with Tasers, nearly all since the early 2000s – the most thorough accounting to date of fatal encounters involving the paralyzing stun guns.”
- In nine out of every 10 of these cases, the person killed was unarmed.
- Taser International, which changed its name to Axon Enterprise earlier this year, claims that only 24 people have ever died from their stun guns.
- Reuters’ reporters reviewed autopsy reports for more than 700 of the 1,005 cases they documented, and found over 150 reports specifically citing Tasers as a cause or contributor to death.
- “The 1,005 deaths identified by Reuters total 44 percent more than the 700 reported by Amnesty International at the end of 2016, despite the news agency’s use of stricter criteria in determining which incidents to count.”
- In roughly the past ten years, “crisis intervention training” programs to prepare officers for the challenges of dealing with people in mental crises have spread from about 400 U.S. law enforcement agencies to about 3,000 today. But that is still only about a sixth of America’s total of approximately 18,000 police departments, about 90 percent of which use Tasers.
- Of 442 lawsuits over Taser deaths reviewed by Reuters, the vast majority, 435, involved a municipality or police department getting sued, while the manufacturer was a defendant in a much smaller number of cases (128).
- City governments and their insurers have paid out at least $172 million to settle Taser-related cases, and that is a low figure. “Because Reuters was not able to identify settlement amounts in dozens of cases where terms weren’t disclosed, the actual total of payouts by local governments and their insurers is certainly higher than $172 million.”
- Over the years, as Taser use has become widespread in U.S. police departments and Taser International (or Axon) has grown into a billion dollar company, lawsuits against it over deaths related to its product have slowed as it has found ways to relegate liability to police in most cases.
- While the company bills its product as “the most studied” police weapon other than firearms, Taser has financial ties to about 30 percent of the research it cites to back this claim.
- “Tasers occupy a gray area in medical research,” according to Reuters. “Journals typically require authors to reveal any ties to the makers of any medical device or drug they write about. But Tasers are not designed for medical purposes, so research around them isn’t necessarily held to the same academic rules.”
- The company has been known to sue critics and experts who testify that its product has contributed to deaths.
This isn’t the first time Taser has made headlines this year — and for reasons beyond simply changing its name to Axon. Last month, for example, the Intercept reported that a former lobbyist for Taser had been appointed chief of staff of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The Intercept has also reported in recent months on the dangers of Taser’s stun guns, and the company’s efforts to get into the budding field of real-time face recognition for police body cameras.
Yet despite this latest round of what can only possibly be interpreted as unfavorable media coverage by Taser, as I’ve very recently noted in another post, the so-called “non-lethal” weapons market continues booming. Taser is projected to remain a “key player” in this growth industry. The allegations in this week’s Reuters series may come as a bit of a shock to Taser’s executives, but the company will live to fight (and profit!) another day — which is more than can be said for some of those shot by its stun guns. For many Taser investors, that may be the only thing that matters.
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