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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Police departments that use "stun" devices like the Taser and other "less lethal weapons" such as pepper spray can expect to see rates of injury among suspects and officers drop dramatically, according to the first federal government-backed analysis of multiple police department arrest records.
As less lethal weapons rose in popularity and availability during this decade, local police departments tended to develop their own internal policies governing them, the study's authors note in their report in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The Department of Justice funded the study, one of several it says it will use to determine which "use of force" policies allow police to work most safely.
One concern of Amnesty International and other Taser critics is that police are more likely to use Tasers in situations that would not have called for physical force. That could mean that even if the injuries sustained by suspects are less severe than those they would have sustained during the use of other physical force, there are more injuries overall.
At least 350 people have died after they were Tasered, according to Amnesty International. It's unclear why, but in many well-documented cases, the victims were highly agitated, drugged, or had chronic medical conditions. Taser International says that the device's barbs cause skin punctures, and if used improperly, Taser fire can cause subjects to fall from a height or injure the face or groin.
"If you just do a simple comparison between cases where they use a less lethal weapon and those where they don't, you get the impression that the weapon causes injury," said John MacDonald, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania who led the study.
To make their comparison more meaningful, the authors took a number of factors into account. In particular, they compared the number of times police had conflicts with suspects when officers had Tasers to when they did not.
Police usually resort to Tasers and pepper spray in more dangerous situations where injuries are more likely to occur, MacDonald said. In comparing records of more than 24,000 police officer and suspect conflicts from 12 different police departments, MacDonald and his colleagues found the risk of injury to suspects apprehended with less lethal weapons typically fell more than 60 percent compared to the risk to suspects who were arrested without the devices, when all other conditions were similar.
(Police department records did not specify the type of conducted energy weapon being used, but given Taser International's market share, MacDonald believes 90 percent of the devices were Tasers.)
MacDonald's team zoomed in on the Orlando, Florida and Austin, Texas police departments, because they both had records before and after the implementation of less lethal weapons. Orlando's rate of suspect injury dropped 53 percent after the Taser rollout, and officer injuries dropped 62 percent. The impact in Austin - where the Tasers were phased in slowly -- was smaller but still significant at 30 percent less for suspects and 25 percent less for officers.
Taser International spokesperson Stephen Tuttle said his company - which had nothing to do with the new study -- is thrilled by the new scientific support. "Taser has taken it on the chin for a number of years," Tuttle told Reuters Health. "This is really a watershed for Taser in terms of finally getting some actuarial, epidemiological data out there to show that Tasers are really reducing injuries."
One heart specialist who has studied deaths linked to Tasers said he still thinks all agencies who use Tasers should have automatic external defibrillators (AED) on hand in case it is necessary to restart suspects' hearts. "The study does nothing to examine the harm side of the Taser equation (as our study did), only the benefits side," Zian Tseng, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote Reuters Health in an email.
MacDonald said requiring an AED in the back of every police cruiser would be disproportionate to the risk. He said that physical force "is much more likely to cause injury and death. For the average case where someone is struggling, Tasering is better than getting hit with baton or a flashlight."
Still, "if there are other less lethal devices that people can invent that can cause even less harm that's great," he said.
SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, December 2009.