May 18, 2007 The taser: a convenient, effective non-lethal way of incapacitating a person, or a potential killer? Amidst claims of misuse, abuse and taser-related deaths, a new study has been undertaken to document the short and medium term physiological effects this painful and common law enforcement tool can have on subjects. Kudos to those who volunteered to be shocked; those five seconds would have felt like an eternity.
The taser was designed in 1969 as an "electric rifle" capable of reliably incapacitating a person by administering electric shocks that disrupt muscle functions and cause extreme pain. It has gained notoriety in the last ten years as worldwide police departments have made it a key tool for law enforcement. With a range of around 10 metres, the taser is more effective than a baton for subduing difficult subjects, and less lethal and invasive than a bullet.
Still, there has been some controversy regarding the use of the Taser in controlling subjects in police custody, including reports of deaths. In a paper to be presented at the 2007 Society for Academic Emergency Medicine (SAEM) Annual Meeting, preliminary results of Taser exposure on healthy subjects will show that no short-term effects were observed.
Human volunteers from law enforcement agreed to receive a single, 5 second exposure from a Taser X26, a model reported to be used by more than 30% of police agencies in the United States. Cardiovascular and blood parameters were measured before exposure and for 60 minutes afterwards. Systolic and diastolic blood pressures, heart rate, calcium, sodium, potassium, bicarbonate and lactate levels and blood pH were measured in 32 subjects. Systolic blood pressure decreased after the Taser due to a likely heightened anxiety before the test. Other measures changed slightly, but there were no clinically significant or lasting changes in the subjects noted during the one-hour observation period.
According to the author, Gary Vilke, MD, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Director, Clinical Research for Emergency Medicine, University of California, San Diego Medical Center, “Evaluating in-custody deaths following use of a Taser is a process that requires looking at the totality of the event. It is like putting a puzzle together. The data from this study help shape another piece of the puzzle by looking at the physiological effects of a single Taser activation in human subjects.”
While there is no question that the incorporation of a technology like the Taser into law enforcement leaves open the potential for harmful misuse, this study appears to back up what proponents have claimed all along - that the Taser is extremely effective, and apart from extreme and incapacitating pain at the instant of use, there appear to be few prolonged side-effects.