Study Finds Taser Safer Than Guns : King Hospital Doctors Compare Outcomes of Victims
In the first large-scale medical review of effects of the Taser electric stun gun, doctors at Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital say the weapon is impressively safe and may have saved many of the 218 people on whom it was used by Los Angeles Police Department officers.
The review included detailed examination of the cases of all 218 people brought to King after they were hit by Taser darts between 1980, when the weapon was first deployed by the LAPD, and late last year. The medical outcomes of the Taser victims were compared to what happened to 22 people shot by police who were seen at King during a two-year period from 1980 to 1982.
The new King hospital data added yet another chapter to the controversial history of the Taser, which has been cited by its backers as a non-lethal alternative to police gunfire but attacked as inhumane by its critics who have also charged it can easily be converted to use as a torture instrument. The Times obtained details of the Taser review this week. Disclosure of the King hospital data came within days of public release of a report by the District Attorney’s Office in which the Taser was partially blamed in the death of Cornelius Garland Smith, a user of the drug PCP who was shot with a Taser last April.
The new study was conducted with the official sponsorship of King hospital by Dr. Gary Ordog and Dr. Jonathan Wasserberger.
In the King study, of the 218 patients seen at the hospital after being shot by the Taser, three died, but the deaths all involved victims with high blood concentrations of PCP who could easily have succumbed to the effects of the drug alone--without any role being played by the stun gun.
A total of 95% of the Taser victims were male and 5% were female, with an average age of 28 and an age range of 15 to 48. Moreover, 70% of the victims had measurable amounts of PCP in their bloodstreams and 15% also had stab wounds when they arrived at the hospital. Ordog said many apparently had been involved in some type of violent behavior other than their encounters with the police.
A third of the Taser victims showed signs of miscellaneous cuts and bruises. Another 15% of the total were naked when they were shot with Tasers, Ordog said, adding to overwhelming evidence that the victims were acting out uncontrollably. There were no recorded heart rhythm disturbances among the Taser victims, Ordog said, though some of the 218 patients did not receive electrocardiogram tests.
While Ordog said he discounted the Taser as a cause of death in the three fatality cases, he said that even if the stun gun were implicated, the Taser’s record is in stark contrast to the effects of gunshots. Of the 22 shooting cases, Ordog said, half of the patients died before they got to the hospital or succumbed just after they arrived.
All of the other 11 patients, he said, suffered some form of permanent injury as a result of the police bullets. Most of the shooting victims who survived ended up paralyzed or blind, he said. About half the Taser victims were able to leave the hospital--either to go home or to jail--after brief observation periods at the hospital.
“I would say that, of the people who were Tasered, it probably saved their lives,” Ordog said.
Shooting victims who lived had average hospital stays of 42 days. People shot by the police were as young as 14 and as old as 38, with an average age of 18.
Taser victims, Ordog said, had been struck by an average of a little more than two Taser darts, indicating police used the Tasers on the average of just one time to subdue each person (The Taser fires two darts simultaneously). Police complied with departmental guidelines by firing most of the Tasers at the victims’ backs, to avoid hitting them in the eyes. No Taser eye injuries were reported, Ordog said, though three victims were struck in the face.
The rest of the Taser contacts involved darts striking the abdomen, buttocks and arms, Ordog said.
Police gunshot victims had been hit by an average of a little more than one bullet each. However, one of the victims had been struck by a combined total of 52 bullets and shotgun pellets after officers opened fire. He survived, Ordog said.
Muscle Tissue Breakdown
Ordog said that 1% of the Taser victims had experienced a medical phenomenon in which muscle tissue breaks down chemically when muscles are strained significantly beyond their structural capacity. The enzymes that are released in the breakdown can cause potentially dangerous kidney damage.
Ordog said electric shock is capable of causing the muscle breakdown, but he said King doctors had discounted the Taser as the cause in those cases since it was far more likely that the influence of PCP--which eliminates much pain sensation and artificially increases the strength of its users--was responsible.
The Taser, first developed in 1974 as a possible means of dealing with midair hijacking attempts, shoots a pair of barbed darts into the clothing or skin. The darts drag fine wires behind them that deliver a 50,000-volt shock from a battery pack in the weapon itself.
The LAPD has 550 Tasers and one of the weapons is supposed to be carried in every patrol car. Use has increased markedly in the last few years with the department now reporting 50 or more Taser uses every month.
LAPD officials said they welcomed results of the new King hospital study, but Bernard Parks, acting commanding officer of the LAPD’s personnel and training bureau, asserted that comparing the lethal nature of police gunfire and Taser use may be misleading.
Parks said that, at least under the official rules and regulations of the LAPD, the Taser may be brought into a use under significantly less serious circumstances than service revolvers and shotguns. However, Parks agreed that many situations in which a Taser is used to subdue a PCP user could easily escalate into an episode where LAPD officers might fire guns.
The LAPD was the first major law enforcement agency to employ the Taser in routine police activities. The deployment occurred during a period when the LAPD had been the object of charges that its officers fired their guns under sometimes questionable circumstances.
He said that, at least according to official department standards, a situation where a gun is used “is well beyond a consideration of the Taser or a chemical irritant (like the chemical Mace). . . .
“At that point, there is only one tool that we have. When an officer is faced with deadly force and it appears his life or someone else’s is in immediate danger, the only tool they have is the firearm.”