Officers Get a Taste of Their Own Tasers

Dayton City Paper | October 4, 2004
As I stood there on the balls of my feet with my head arched back, one police officer on each arm, safety goggles on and mouthpiece inserted, I remember counting down the last few seconds of my five-second, 50,000-volt Taser "hit" as my mind, not my vocal chords, screamed out in pain. Despite experiencing the most intense pain I’ve ever felt, I couldn’t do anything except think.

Most of the officers who took a "hit" before me at a mandatory Sept. 1 Taser training class at the Dayton Police Academy had fallen to protective mats, yelping like abused dogs. After my hit ended, I fell to the ground with a charley horse in my right calf and officers moved in to pull the weapon’s mini-spears out of my back and apply first aid.

Muscle tightness persisted in my calf for a few days. But it is better to try to recover from a muscle cramp than a bullet to the head — so goes the argument in favor of Taser deployment in law enforcement.

It is well documented that use of the Taser has likely saved the lives and definitely decreased the injuries of mentally ill and homeless people armed with knives who would have otherwise been shot by law enforcement officers, including incidents in Kettering and Cincinnati. According to some police departments, Taser use has also decreased injuries to police officers who use them by up to 80 percent.

We previously reported that taking a Taser "hit," as the training officers refer to it, was mandatory for all Dayton police officers so that they could understand what the weapon felt like before using it. But that policy changed quickly after Officer Joe Beacham, now a Taser instructor, clenched his jaw so tight during his hit that he dislocated his jaw and cracked three teeth. Now, taking the hit is voluntary, but the classes, most of whose materials are provided by Taser International, are still mandatory. Carrying the Taser has not yet been made mandatory, but that move is likely because the DPD wants to decrease its liability from incidents involving the use of firearms.

At the Sept. 1 training, approximately 20 officers were in attendance. Sgt. Robert Wilhite was the instructor. The reactions to the mandatory program were mixed — irritated, curious, concerned and not at all interested.

"What are you going to do if someone points a Taser at you?" Wilhite asked the seated officers.

"Shoot ‘em," one officer retorted.

"That may very well be the wrong answer," Wilhite responded. "If you’re alone and somebody points a Taser at you, you may have a deadly force situation. With a partner, you do not. The Taser, in and of itself, is not a deadly weapon."

The reality, one that concerned some of the attendees, is that officers may be facing these Tasers on the street in the near future because the manufacturing company has decided to begin marketing its fourth-generation model, the X-26, to the public in the next couple months. Just as Tasers give police officers a means to "control" an agitated and violent individual, they will also give a potential criminal the opportunity to disarm and control a police officer without a physical altercation.

"What happens if you hit someone in the face?" another officer asked.

"Nobody’s ever volunteered for that, so I don’t know," Wilhite stated.

There were a fair amount of unknowns for the trainers. The DPD seemed to be running somewhat of a guinea pig operation with its officers, the transition to Taser use being a work in progress.

So far, Wilhite is the only officer with a computer that can run the correct software needed to process the dataport information that the Taser gun collects internally on each of its firings.

According to Wilhite, the Crisis Intervention (CIT) and SWAT teams that initially tried out the X-26s experienced a fair amount of difficulty with their use because of a lack of training.

After an introductory session, it was time for the hits. Wilhite indicated that everyone should take one in order to get the full benefit of the class. He also suggested a bathroom break.

"It gets your attention," Wilhite intoned. "We haven’t had anybody fall asleep yet."

Because the hits were no longer mandatory, peer pressure was employed against the officers, with an impromptu drop-in by SWAT Sgt. Gaby to pressure the troops. Volunteers were slow at first, but the pace quickened with one officer even volunteering to take two 50,000-volt hits simultaneously.

"We’ve never had anyone volunteer for that," Beacham marveled.

Some officers weren’t having any of it.

"Fifty already died," Sgt. Judy Abshire quipped when Wilhite and Beacham tried to get her to take a hit. "I don’t want to be 51."

Abshire was referring to the approximately 50 documented, nationwide deaths that have occurred after individuals were tased. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The LA Times, and The Christian Science Monitor have all reported on them, but the Scottsdale-based Taser International, the company that manufactures the electrical weapons, claims that there has never been even one documented case in which the Taser was the direct cause of death.

The Arizona Republic has come out the strongest against Taser International’s claims, saying that the company omitted details that contradict its claims, such as the published findings of medical examiners who have concluded that the Taser has directly caused deaths or contributed to deaths.

A recent, post-Taser death happened in Dayton on June 30 — that of Eric Bernard Christmas, as we reported in our last article. The Montgomery County coroner’s office concluded that he died from "cocaine-induced, fatal excited delirium" and noted, "History of Taser gun use by police officer on decedent during restraint efforts shortly before cardiac arrest." The autopsy also indicated Christmas had a body temperature of 108.9 at the time of his heart attack, a fact brought about by his overuse of crack cocaine. Most people’s brains begin cooking at around 106 or 107 degrees, with fainting, brain damage and death being possible results.

The Dayton Daily News and WHIO both reported that, in response to the death, Chief Julian Davis said that CIT’s Officer Jason Hall tried to tase Christmas twice, once manually as a stun gun and once by firing two Taser barbs into his right breast region, but that the gun malfunctioned and administered no electricity. But, according to the dataport printout for the gun Hall used, the Taser gun was discharged at least six times over the span of one minute and 28 seconds — twice for five seconds, once for three seconds, twice for two seconds, and once for nine seconds. In addition, initial reports indicated that law enforcement thought that Christmas had methamphetamine in his system, but the coroner’s office did not test for that substance.

In any case, most of the deaths that have occurred after Taser use have involved individuals high on PCP, methamphetamine, or crack cocaine. One question raised is, are Tasers safe to be used on the very same target individuals that the company’s booming PR voice mentions in their training videos — "individuals on hyperstimulants?"

"I don’t know anybody who’s going to volunteer to take a bunch of PCP and then take a hit," Wilhite stated. "But, according to Taser, there’s no indication that the guns add any stress to the heart for animals on stimulants."

DCP is still trying to procure these studies from Taser International.

"It’s not the volts that are dangerous," Wilhite added, parroting a line from Taser’s publications. "It’s the amps."

While it is true that it is amperage (current) that burns tissue and fibrillates hearts, it is also true that, where there is voltage, there is amperage. The Ohm’s Law equation for current (measured in amps) is, Current = Voltage/Resistance.

What Tasers are effectively doing is making the human body a part of a circuit, and each person has a different resistance based on many different variables. For example, if they are covered in salt-rich sweat (as Christmas was) or if the point of contact penetrates the bloodstream (which is high in conductive materials), their resistance will be lower, meaning that the same voltage will result in a higher amperage.

We have brought on an independent scientist from the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland to look into Taser’s claims. When we get more information, we will update this story.

Sidenote: On the use-of-force continuum that law enforcement uses to determine appropriate responses to different situations, Taser use is ranked at the same level as the use of pepper spray. It is not recommended for use on pregnant women, nor to be used on the groin or head area. Its use is documented to have ruptured breast implants, causing silicon to leak into the bloodstream and resulting in more serious injuries. Tasers are not to be used in a flammable (i.e. natural gas) environment and they have been known to cause pepper spray canisters to combust.

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