A US study of the nationwide use of Tasers, the electrical stun guns used by the police, suggests the devices are safe and cause only a low incidence of serious injuries.

The independent prospective study was carried out by emergency medicine researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and was presented at the American College of Emergency Physicians’ Research Forum in Seattle, Washington, yesterday, 8th October. The study was funded by the National Institute of Justice. Researchers from Louisiana State University, Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, and University Medical Center, Nevada, also contributed to the study.

Tasers are used by many law enforcement officers throughout the US and have been credited with leading to a lower rate of injuries and deaths among police officers and suspects in incidents where police use of force is involved. However, their use is regarded as controversial in many quarters.

The research examined nearly 1,000 cases of Taser use, and found 99.7 per cent of them had either no injuries, or only mild injuries such as “scrapes and bruises”. In 0.3 per cent of the cases (3 people) the injuries were serious enough to require hospital admission. Two had head injuries sustained during falls after the Taser was used and the third was hospitalized two days after arrest with a condition “of unclear relationship to the Taser” said the researchers in a prepared statement.

Early results of the study (covering nearly 600 cases of Taser use) were published in a paper last year, in the September issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Lead investigator on the study and specialist in emergency medicine at Wake Forest, Dr William Bozeman said:

“This study is the first large, independent study of injuries associated with Tasers. It is the first injury epidemiology study to review every Taser deployment and to reliably assess the overall risk and severity of injuries in real-world conditions.”

“The injury rate is low and most injuries appear to be minor. These results support the safety of the devices,” he added.

Bozeman said the review covered 100 per cent of Taser use and the study offered the best information to date on the medical risks of using the weapon. He said other studies were limited because they looked either at the effect on animals or healthy police volunteers undergoing training (police officers have to experience the effect of a Taser before they can use one). He said this was the first study to examine the effect of Tasers on “criminal suspects in real-world conditions”.

The study covered six law enforcement agencies across the US. A “tactical physician” at each agency reviewed police and medical records following the successful use of a Taser. They classified injuries into mild, moderate or severe and their relationship to the Taser was classed as direct, indirect, or uncertain.

One drawback of the study that has been raised is that it only examines the after effects of the use of the weapon. One of the animal studies dismissed by Bozeman was carried out on pigs and showed that at the time the shock is administered it can significantly raise heart rate.

Lauren Regan, executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon, told the Associated Press (AP) that she found the statistics “surprising”, “considering the number of injuries, including to police officers, that have been reported”.

Two cases of Taser use have captured headline news in the US recently. One was during the arrest of student Andrew Meyer when he asked a question during a speech by presidential candidate Senator John Kerry at Florida Unversity. The other was when Ohio woman Heidi Gill was filmed being shocked several times with a Taser.

A report by ABC news suggests that Amnesty International are also reviewing the study and will reveal their official reaction soon.

The southern regional director of the organization in Atlanta, Jared Feuer, told ABC that it could be dangerous to assume Tasers pose little risk, citing the John Kerry speech case as a “perfect example in which a Taser is providing an alternative to negotiation”.

According to Amnesty International, use of Tasers has been followed by death in 277 cases. They are also concerned that the weapons are used on unarmed people, and in most cases they maintain, there was no imminent threat to the officer or other people in the situation. Feuer told ABC his organization is concerned that “technology has outpaced policy”.

Bozeman also alluded to the policy angle, when he commented on the benefits and risks that have to be weighed in the decision to use the weapon:

The Taser is a weapon and it can clearly cause injuries and even deaths in some cases.”

“The question is ‘how likely is it to cause a significant injury’ and whether that risk of injury outweighs the benefits it brings,” he added.

Click here for Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Click here for ABC report: “Tasers Safe? New Study Sparks More Debate”.

Click here for AP report: “Study indicates police Taser use is safe”.

Written by: Catharine Paddock