Outcry over whether police are using Taser stun-guns appropriately -- or whether they ought to use them at all -- continues to fuel calls for greater police transparency and accountability.
Local activists are calling on the police to make changes to internal rules that govern how and when Tasers may be used. They also question the recent Allegheny County medical examiner's report that found no involvement of Tasers in the death of Andre Thomas. The Swissvale resident was hit with the Taser's immobilizing electrical current three times during an encounter with borough police on Aug. 5. On Sept. 24, his cause of death was determined to relate only to cocaine intoxication.
At a Sept. 23 unofficial meeting of the Citizen Police Review Board, which endorsed city police use of Tasers beginning in 2004, Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger suggested that the board may push for statewide Taser standards. "[W]ith at least 950 law enforcement agencies in the Commonwealth, do we want more than 900 standards of Taser use?" she added in a later e-mail. "I think not.
"What we do know is that we do not understand the association between Taser exposure and occasional post-exposure deaths. [...] Just as every municipal police officer in Pennsylvania must annually demonstrate competence with every firearm they may carry, so too they should demonstrate competent use of Taser and similar devices before they are authorized to use them." Training ought to be offered in "suspect management" and alternative tactics such as "forming a perimeter around a high-risk suspect, or use of other techniques like entanglement technology" as an alternative to the Taser.
David Meieran, of Stop Taser Abuse Today, asked the board to support instead a moratorium on their use, since they seemed to be increasingly used to protect police more than the public, and the devices' medical effects are still being studied. Meieran also questions the science behind the ruling by Dr. Karl Williams, the county's medical examiner, of "agitated delirium due to acute cocaine intoxication" as the cause of Andre Thomas' death.
Such delirium is said to happen when even low amounts of cocaine or other psychostimulants produce a neurochemical imbalance in the brain, shutting down the autonomic nervous system that keeps the heart beating.
Of the 98 cocaine-related death cases examined by Williams' office since 2000, only eight turned up delirium, including five with the more toxic "excited" delirium ruling. And only five deaths -- not the same five -- followed contact with police. "Only three of them involved the use of a Taser," Williams says. "Two of them involved pepper spray."
It remains "very hard to say" whether Andre Thomas would have died that night had police not been called to the scene, Williams says. Such people "are in a very critical state and could go one way or the other." Although medical attention from emergency personnel, such as sedatives, fluids and other "supportive measures, may save the life of a person in such a condition, he adds, "[i]f they get to a certain point, [they] are very, very difficult to resuscitate."
Williams relies on the work of Dr. Deborah Mash, a professor both of neurology and molecular and cellular pharmacology at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
"I have studied this so-called phenomenon of excited delirium since the late '80s," Mash notes -- ever since the crack epidemic hit Dade County, but long before Tasers were in use by police.
"Death in a recreational user is a rare occurrence," she explains, affecting only "a subgroup of chronic cocaine users." However, "nobody collected statistical data" there or nationally on the phenomenon, with or without police contact, she says. But she insists that, because her readings of dopamine increases in the brains of those she examines on behalf of medical examiners throughout the world has not changed with the advent of Tasers, Tasers are not a factor in such deaths.
The real cause may be "an interaction between genes and the environment," Mash says, noting that potential "triggers" are everything from drugs to stress.
And what's more stressful than being Tasered in police custody, argues anti-Taser activist Meieran. He hopes to end what he sees as law enforcement's "constant mantra: Tasers are safe and they reduce violence -- because it's better to be shot with a Taser than a gun." He points to an official audit, released this month of police Taser use over more than two years in Houston, Texas, that found not only a disproportionate use on blacks (67 percent of Taser uses, whereas blacks make up 25 percent of the population), but no reduction in the number of shootings by police officers.
"The most serious problem with Tasers," Meieran concludes, "is that they are being used for pain compliance, which is nothing but a euphemism for torture."
Meieran's STAT group and others in Pittsburgh plan to produce a report "on Taser use and abuse" in Allegheny County, he says. The report, Meieran hopes, "will be an important tool to change Taser use policy and raise public awareness about police brutality and racism."