An Athlete Died After Being Tased. Are Tasers More Dangerous Than We Think?

The Taser-related death of Dalian Atkinson is still under investigation.

by Madison Margolin
Aug 16 2016, 5:38pm

Taser Gun. Image: United States Military/Wikipedia

Former soccer player Dalian Atkinson, 48, died on Monday morning after being tased by a police officer outside his father's house in Telford, England.

His death challenges the idea that Tasers are always a safe alternative to guns. Numerous studies have shown them to be the safest alternative to other forms of police force. But while Taser death is rare, Atkinson is not the only victim.

Police are using Tasers more frequently than ever. "As of the first quarter of 2016, TASER International had sold approximately 850,000 TASER brand conducted electrical weapons (CEWs) to more than 18,000 law enforcement and military agencies in 107 countries," said Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications at TASER International.

But Tasers are often used against unarmed civilians, not people who could easily kill a police officer, according to the Coalition for Taser Free Berkeley, an anti-tasing advocacy group. Between 2001 and 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union and a website called documented 547 deaths related to tasing. And between 2002 and 2007, 28 percent of those tased by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police needed medical attention.

One study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that even though Tasers are considered safer than guns, Taser deployment was involved with increased in-custody sudden deaths early in the deployment period, while deaths from firearms or serious injuries did not decrease. They can also provoke cardiac arrest, according to Dr. Douglas Zipes at Indiana University's Krannert Institute of Cardiology.

But usually if a person is injured by a Taser, it might be because they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or have a preexisting medical condition, Tuttle told me. "If someone is under the influence to a dangerous degree, they're already compromised, whether the police use force or not."

That could explain what happened during Dalian Atkinson's brutal-sounding death. A neighbor, Paula Quinn, observed him "stumbling towards" police around 1:30 AM, at which point an officer released the Taser, and another continued to kick him. "Then the officer with the Taser asked the gentleman to put his hands behind his back and did so probably two or three times and reactivated the Taser another four or five times after that," Quinn told BBC.

Atkinson seemed "inebriated," she told the Shropshire Star. "As the Taser hit him in the stomach he just went 'doof', down like a lead balloon." Atkinson was then taken by paramedics and had a heart attack en route to the hospital. He was pronounced dead at 3 AM.

The issues that come into play during a Taser death are usually exposed during autopsies, Tuttle said, and Atkinson's death is still under investigation. But the Taser doesn't usually make things worse, he said, since the Taser incapacitates a person for only five seconds and there are no long term effects.

Part of determining the Taser's safety lies in how they are used. According to a report by the United States Department of Justice/National Institute of Justice panel on the safety of TASER weapons, aiming a Taser at the chest, in front of the heart, is not completely risk-free. And they shouldn't be used multiple times on the same target. Both of which seem to have happened to Atkinson.

But an independent study by the United States Department of Justice concluded that "there is currently no medical evidence that CEDs [conducted energy devices] pose a significant risk for induced cardiac dysrhythmia in humans when deployed reasonably."

One thing is clear: while there are risks to using a Taser, and using it incorrectly, they are not nearly as dangerous as guns. (In 2015 alone, nearly 1,000 people died from police shootings.) And according to the Dr. Eastman Study of theDallas Police Department, in 5.4 percent of all deployments, Tasers were used in situations that could have deemed the use of lethal force.

If that's the case, more than 170,157 people averted death by being tased instead of shot, beat up, or otherwise put in harm's way.