Study: TASER hits to chest pose no extra danger

Taking a TASER hit to the chest is no more dangerous than to other body parts, a Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study has found

By Richard Craver
Winston-Salem Journal

WAKE FOREST, N.C. — William Bozeman of Wake Forest Baptist says a study found no apparent cardiac complications.

Taking a Taser shot to the chest is no more dangerous than to other body parts, a Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center study has found.

However, the study is unlikely to change how law-enforcement officers use the device, analysts and officials said last week.

A Taser shoots darts that carry an electrical current to shock the central nervous system and temporarily paralyze the target.

What makes the use of Tasers controversial is that there have been reports that shocks to the chest from stun guns could have been a contributing factor in the deaths of people who had heart problems or were on drugs when they confronted law-enforcement personnel.

Taser International, which makes the devices, issued a "training bulletin" in 2009 that recommended law-enforcement officers target the devices at suspects' abdomens or legs to avoid cardiac arrest. Winston-Salem police have used that protocol since officers were provided with the devices in 2009.

Wake Forest Baptist researchers reviewed 1,201 cases of Taser use by seven law-enforcement agencies in six states — none in North Carolina — from June 2005 through June 2008. The vast majority of the suspects were male. Each use was reviewed by a physician.

In 178 of the cases, the Taser darts landed on the suspect's chest and delivered an electrical charge that may have traveled across the heart area.

"We found no cases where there was an apparent cardiac complication related to the Taser," said Dr. William Bozeman, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist.

The study also determined that none of the suspects hit by the Taser shot in the chest had a higher injury rate than those hit elsewhere on the body.

The study is the latest by Bozeman and his team of researchers, who have been evaluating the use of Tasers by law-enforcement personnel since 2004. Studies in 2007 and 2009 found Tasers are relatively safe and contribute to serious injuries in less than 1 percent of all uses.

"Although not risk free, Tasers have been associated with lower rates of injuries to suspects and officers than other traditional intermediate force options, such as physical force, pepper spray and handheld impact weapons," Bozeman said.

Scott Cunningham, police chief of Winston-Salem, said the department will continue with its guidance of aiming at the abdomen. "We believe the research of Dr. Bozeman and that there is no additional risk with being struck in the chest," Cunningham said. "But we have had positive results with the lower aim point.

"Our officers are very well-trained with its use, use it only when necessary, and the actions of the citizen are the primary determinant of use."

Eddie Caldwell, general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs' Association, said the issue with Tasers has been more "when you can deploy it compared with where you can deploy."

"This study could allow for more internal discussion among law-enforcement agencies about where personnel are allowed to aim."

Caldwell said he does not believe officers who are allowed to have a large target area will be more likely to use the Taser than they do now.

The Wake Forest Baptist study likely won't lead to sweeping changes in how Tasers are used as a restraint device, said Kimya Dennis, an assistant professor of sociology at Salem College.

"There could be some groups who cite the study as final proof that Taser can be used on any part of the body," Dennis said. "I would think most law-enforcement agencies will stay with their policies of doing the least amount of harm possible to restrain or apprehend a suspect."

Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, said the reason for the revised targeting guidelines "was to increase ground effectiveness by targeting the pelvic muscles, and also for risk-management reasons to avoid the controversy in litigation."

Tuttle said studies, such as by Wake Forest Baptist, suggest that policies restricting Taser usage in the chest area based on cardiac safety concerns "are unnecessary." He said the latest version of the Tasers, which became available in mid-2011, requires less power and does a more precise job of regulating the output.

Critics of the use of Tasers cite other studies, such as one published in the May edition of American Heart Association's Circulation journal, that say the devices can "provoke cardiac arrest resulting from ventricular tachycardia/ventricular fibrillation."

Authors of the Circulation report said the purpose of their article "is not to condemn" the use of Tasers by trained professionals. They said they want to encourage users to be judicious concerning how and when to use the weapon, to avoid chest shocks if possible, to monitor the person after the shock, and to suspect this adverse response in anyone who loses consciousness.

"In North Carolina and across the country, we have too often seen Tasers misused with tragic results," said Chris Brook, legal director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We continue to urge law-enforcement agencies to implement training policies that effectively educate officers about the risk of using Tasers and make clear that they should be used only when absolutely necessary."

The latest Wake Forest Baptist study has been published online in the Journal of Emergency Medicine. The National Institute of Justice paid for the study.

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