Axon (the company formerly known as Taser) claims that their stun guns have only directly killed 24 people, and that those deaths were due to falls or fires related to the strikes, not because of shocks to the body. But a new investigative report by Reuters found 1005 cases in the United States where a person died after police used the weapon on them.
The news outlet also found autopsy reports for 712 of the cases. In 153 of those autopsies, stun guns were cited as a cause of or contributing factor to the death. The majority of the rest of the autopsies “cited a combination of heart and medical conditions, drug use and various forms of trauma,” according to Reuters.
About a quarter of those killed were suffering from a neurological disorder or mental health issues. Most of the people were unarmed.
Tasers first became popular among police officers in the early 2000s. Around that time, the company claimed the device could help officers take control of people who are intoxicated or in the midst of a mental breakdown, Reuters reported, highlighting a 2007 deposition in which Taser President Rick Smith said, “We did see those as potential uses of the device,” as well as 2004 police-training material calling stun guns the “premier tool” for agencies that work with “emotionally disturbed persons”.
Taser International changed its name to Axon earlier this year, as it began a program to give free body cameras to all police officers in the US for a year. Today, about 90 per cent of US police agencies use Tasers. The weapons are often promoted as a safer alternative to guns, largely thanks to studies such as a 2011 US Department of Justice report showing Tasers lower injury rates when used properly. Last year, the company debuted a small Taser gun for consumers.
Steve Tuttle, Axon’s vice president of communications, told Gizmodo that since there are hundreds of reports, abstracts and studies on the Taser, it is the “most-studied less-lethal weapon” available to law enforcement officers. “Tasers are not risk free but they are proven safer than batons, fists, take downs, tackles and impact munitions,” said Tuttle. “Any loss of life is a tragedy regardless of the circumstance, which is why we remain committed to developing technology and training to protect life in public safety.”
Axon told Reuters that their report is misleading because most of the deaths also involved police force and because the autopsies had not been peer-reviewed, though that is not a standard requirement by courts of law. More than 400 of the incidents included court documents that had detailed accounts of the incidents. A fourth of those showed that Tasers were the only form of police force.