By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The basic concern of Taser naysayers always has been the product's safety.
"How many deaths related to these devices must occur before we have concrete, impartial information that accurately describes the potential dangers of use?" asked Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, in a January statement. "In the hands of police officers, Tasers have been a questionable weapon, at best. More than 220 people in the United States have died after being shocked with Tasers."
But coroners around the nation have called Tasers a factor in a subject's death in about only a dozen of the 220 cases.
New Times also examined 14 cases in Maricopa County in which a person died after being Tased and found a much more complex scenario than the murderous one suggested by Larry Cox and others.
In each of those cases, the victim was under the influence of illegal drugs when he died, almost always methamphetamine. Several also had health problems, including damaged hearts, obesity, and serious mental illness. Almost all seemed out of control in the moments before they slipped into unconsciousness and later died.
Taser International estimates that more than 200,000 people have been shocked by its stun guns in the past decade. Some of them have been Tased voluntarily during training sessions, and thousands more have been stunned in real-life situations.
A Phoenix man interviewed for this story says he's thankful that Tasers existed three years ago when he was suicidal. He says he knows Phoenix police could have and maybe should have shot him on a summer night in 2004.
"I was an idiot," says the 27-year-old father of two young girls who requested anonymity now that he says he has turned his life around. "My girlfriend wouldn't let me see my kids, and I went off. Didn't hit nobody, but I broke some stuff at her place, and someone called the police."
He says he was tweaking when cops showed up at a west Phoenix apartment complex and ordered him to come outside. He says he stepped into a foyer and stuck his hand beneath his shirt, as if he was reaching for a weapon.
"Didn't care no more," he says.
Records show he was unarmed.
Then he saw the first of two officers pull out Tasers.
"I think I said I was going to kill them, which was bullshit. Then I was, 'Shit, they're not going to kill me, they're gonna fry my ass,'" he says. "Next thing I knew, I was down on the ground, and they were cuffing me. My elbow hurt for a long time afterward. But I wasn't dead, and I could have been."
The charges against the man were reduced to misdemeanors after he successfully completed probation.
It's a beautiful spring day and about 25 Phoenix police officers are sitting in a classroom ready to undergo a daylong training session on the use of Taser stun guns.
Many of the officers are recent recruits, while others are veterans getting re-certified in how to deploy the device.
The first instructor, Officer Michael Bosworth, stands in the classroom in a Red Sox cap and starts with a verbal bang.
"We have an obligation and duty to stop someone who's going to hurt himself or someone else," the native Bostonian says. "How are we gonna stop them? Are we going to shoot everyone? Obviously not. This is where Taser can come in handy."
Bosworth shows a series of wild videos of cops deploying Tasers.
"A Taser is not a magic bullet," he says, "though it has saved thousands of lives around the country. It's an electrical device, and it doesn't work 100 percent of the time. Sometimes, a subject will hop back up after the five seconds, like a little puppy dog ready for more. You need contingency plans. And remember, it's not a substitute for lethal force! You want to totally avoid using a Taser on a subject with a gun."
Bosworth shows a tape of a suspect in a Chandler jail cell who quickly re-energizes and fights like crazy a few seconds after getting hit with a five-second Taser cycle. It takes eight officers to finally subdue the man.
"For some people, it's the worst pain they've ever felt, a life-changing experience," Bosworth tells the class. "Not for that guy. Here's something else to remember: Don't apply extra cycles because you're pissed off at someone or you're having fun. Giving unnecessary additional cycles is not in policy, so don't do it."
Bosworth gives the floor to Officer Kevin Johnson.
"Ride for five," Johnson tells the class, meaning that "everyone gets a full five-second [Taser] cycle unless circumstances dictate otherwise."
Johnson reminds the class that 20 to 40 bits of brightly colored confetti will emit from a Taser during each use, with the weapon's serial number printed on each tiny piece. The time, date and duration of the previous 1,500 firings also remain on a computer inside the stun gun.
"Every time you shot the dog with it or played around with it with your friends, your supervisor is going to know about it," Johnson says. "Remember that."
The officer spends time on the department's recent use-of-Taser policy changes, concluding that "you definitely can Tase if you believe you are going to be harmed, but you had better be able to articulate that at a later date."
It appears the only reason a variety of "civil-rights groups" don't like the Taser is it takes money out of their pockets by minimizing "wrongful death" lawsuits.
Congratulations on a really great job on this story. As the brother of a police officer, I know what goes on out there and how many times that guns would be the right call over anything else. Tasers aren't perfect by any means as the story says, but they sure as hell are better than getting a bullet in the chest, or even better than getting the crap beat out of you because you won't stop. Everyone who trashes Taser should read this. You can use this as a letter or not, I just wanted to thank you.