Police stun guns, legal liability and you

Police departments around the nation routinely use TASER and other brands of  “stun gun”  devices to temporarily disable suspects who are aggressive or combative when authorities try to arrest or question them.

For police, the devices are seen as equalizers that allow officers to get the upper hand over dangerous suspects in difficult situations when police arrive to make arrests or investigate a crime.

The problem, though, is that these devices can also be dangerous.

A typical stun gun device is illustrated in this photo. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/seanfboggs

On a regular basis, incidents occur where police use of TASER or other stun gun device leads to or contributes to the death of a suspect in police custody.

This is not acceptable in a free society, where individuals shouldn’t have to risk death when they are being questioned or arrested by police officers.

The latest case occurred last week in Mount Joy, Pa., in Lancaster County.

A 61-year-old Mount Joy man died last Saturday after police used a stun gun to disable him, according to a story in The (Lancaster) Sunday News.

Police arrived at the man’s home after he called for help in connection with alleged harassment by his neighbors, the story said. When talking with police, he “became combative and aggressive,” according to the police report. The man’s reactions escalated and police used stun guns on him “after repeated attempts to calm him failed,” the story said.

As more officers arrived, the man continued to struggle and he was maced and stunned again as police worked to gain control of the situation, according to The Sunday News. As the man was placed in an ambulance for transport, his breathing and pulse weakened. CPR was started, but the man died by the time he reached a hospital, according to the story.

Toxicology tests are still pending to determine the cause of the man’s death and whether it was related to the stun gun use, according the the paper.

In the meantime, this incident again illustrates the potential dangers when law enforcement agencies use these kinds of devices in a wide range of cases.

At least 351 people in the U.S. have died since 2001 after being shocked by stun gun devices by police, according to Amnesty International, which tracks such incidents. Not enough research has been done concerning the use of the devices, the group argues.

“TASERS too often interfere with a basic equation of policing: that force must be proportional to the threat,” according to a statement on the group’s Web site. “Because TASERS are often seen as completely safe and non-lethal, they are often used as a weapon of first rather than last resort. They have become less an alternative to deadly force than an alternative to less-intensive policing techniques.”

The TASER devices allow officers to temporarily disable a suspect by “shooting” them with an electrical jolt, according to TASER International Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz., one of the largest makers of stun gun devices. The jolt causes “neuro muscular incapacitation (NMI),” according to the company’s Web site. “The key technology to disable even the most aggressive subjects, NMI temporarily overrides the command and control systems of the body to impair muscular control.”

There are no easy answers about the use of stun gun devices by police departments.

In Fargo, N.D., police use TASER brand devices and they say the devices help them protect their officers and the public, according to the police department’s Web site.

“Even though North Dakota has one of the lowest crimes rates in the country, police still encounter situations where force is needed to subdue a subject who is resisting them,” the Web site states. “In the past, officers had to rely on batons, pepper spray or hands-on techniques to restrain an uncooperative person. The TASER gives Fargo Police another, less-lethal use of force option.”

Many police departments, including the Fargo Police, have adopted policies on when and how stun gun devices may be used to subdue an aggressive or dangerous suspect.

That’s a great step toward making the use of these devices safer.

But many questions remain about stun guns and their safety.

Police stun gun incidents have been the subject of countless lawsuits in recent years as police departments are being sued for damages and liability by people who are injured by the use of the devices.

Last month, a $3.3 million lawsuit was filed by a federal prison inmate in Florida who alleges that excessive force was used when he was arrested in 2009 at his home in connection with a domestic dispute, according to a story in the Panama City, Fla., News Herald. The 49-year-old man alleges that he suffered heart problems, a heart attack and chest injuries from the stun gun.

In April of 2009, the family of a 16-year-old boy sued police in Warren, Mich., after the unarmed boy died following a stun gun hit by police after a traffic stop and foot chase, according to a story by UPI.

In Oregon this past July, a diabetic 37-year-old woman settled a lawsuit for $37,500 following an incident in 2005 when she was shot by a police stun gun while she was undergoing a diabetic shock incident. When police arrived following a friend’s 9-1-1 call, a police officer found her holding a syringe full on insulin, according to a story in The (Portland) Oregonian. The officer ordered her to drop the syringe and when she didn’t – due to her medical condition – he shot her with the stun gun.

As part of the settlement, Gresham, Ore., police were to undergo special training this past summer so its officers can “better recognize and care for people in medical distress, including those with diabetes,” the story reported.

In September, a 65-year-old Marin County, Calif., man sued the Marin County Sheriff’s Office in connection with a police stun gun incident last year at his home.

The man alleged in his lawsuit that he was repeatedly shocked with a stun gun after he ignored repeated orders by police to put his hands behind his back, according to a story on MercuryNews.com. The suit alleges that excessive force was used during the arrest.

In August, a lawsuit was settled in Mount Vernon, Ill., that was filed by the families of three teens who were shot by a deputy using a stun gun during an incident at an adolescent center, according to UPI. The case was settled for $750,000, according to the story.

Though stun guns are purported to be less dangerous than other means of subduing a suspect in a crime, they can certainly cause injuries and death to human beings because of their design and use.

Because the devices use an electrical charge instead of bullets, it’s easy for law enforcement authorities to view them as safer.

That assumption, however, can have deadly consequences.

This needs to change.

Police need to use stun guns with the same caution and urgency that they consider when they pull their hand guns out of their holsters to fire a bullet at a suspect.

While police often think that stun guns are safe alternatives to bullets, they need to be more aware of the fact that suspects can also die from stun gun injuries.

Rules on police conduct in connection with deadly force need to reflect that stun guns are also a police tool that can incur force that can be just as deadly.

If you or someone you love is injured in connection with the use of stun guns by police, we here at MyPhillyLawyer are here to discuss your case and provide assistance.