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Tasers are a law enforcement staple worldwide

As my colleague Maria Glod wrote today, Arlington County police are investigating the death of a suspect who died in their custody Sunday night after a police officer used a Taser to subdue him.

Glancing over the many comments on the story -- and the many questions raised -- it seems like a good time to explain a bit about Tasers and how common a tool they have become in local law enforcement.

Law enforcement agencies across the region, country, and globe employ Tasers in their arsenals as a "less lethal" option for officers to use in controlling a suspect. They argue that the use of an immobilizing electric shock -- usually deployed by using two probes attached to wires -- is safer for both the officer and the suspect, as such devices allow officers to avoid close physical combat or the use of a firearm.

The Tasers also allow officers to "stun" suspects by placing contacts on the device directly to the person's body.

The goal, according to police officials, is to control the suspect while avoiding the need to seriously injure or kill them, especially in dangerous circumstances where the use of deadly force might be acceptable. Police officers I've talked to over the years would generally rather subdue a suspect with a Taser than a baton or a gun.

According to Taser company materials, the electric shocks, when employed correctly, are relatively harmless and cause no permanent damage, as the shocks are designed to temporarily incapacitate a person's muscle control during a short electric pulse.

That's where there is some debate.

Amnesty International compiled a report in 2008 that examined more than 330 deaths that occurred shortly after police Tased people in the line of duty. That report identified at least 50 cases in which a coroner had listed Tasing as a "cause or contributory factor" in the death.

There have been wrongful death lawsuits filed against the company, including one last month involving a Nevada doctor who died after being stunned repeatedly as he acted erratically after suffering a medical emergency.

Taser, on the other hand, says in press materials that its devices are "among the safest response to resistance options available to law enforcement officials and citizens."

The company says it has sold more than 406,000 Taser devices to more than 14,200 law enforcement agencies around the world since 1998, with the devices being used on at least 660,000 suspects, or an average of nearly 500 per day. Nearly a million other tasings on law enforcement officers during training have been performed safely.

Arlington police told us that the department has 114 Tasers at its disposal and that it has used them on suspects fewer than 20 times each year on average since 2004, when officers there started using them. Arlington police used Tasers 12 times in 2008.

A local police officer I spoke with recently, who was Tased during his training to use the devices, said it was unpleasant, but had no effects on him other than the immediate incapacitation.

One reader commenting on Maria's story speculated that it's "50/50" as to whether someone will die when Tased. That is clearly off base: Deaths alleged to be a direct or indirect result of Tasing are extremely rare, even if the highest estimates of deaths are used.

As with any law enforcement weapon, there is always the potential for abuse, which is why police investigate the use of Tasers in the line of duty. Contacts between suspects and police officers are often complex situations that are far easier to analyze in hindsight, regardless of the outcome.

In the Arlington case, police are unsure whether the Taser's probes even hit the suspect and whether any electric shock was employed in trying to subdue him. That could explain why he was able to continue to struggle. How the man died remains unknown, and medical examiners are looking into the cause of his death.

-- Josh White

By Josh White  |  January 19, 2010; 10:11 AM ET
Categories:  Arlington , From the Post , Josh White , Maria Glod  
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