Warren Ragudo died after two Taser shocks by police intervening in a family altercation. Ramzi Saad died after a Taser shock by police during a dispute between Saad and his mother. Chinedu Okobi died after police used a Taser to subdue him in a confrontation they blamed on his refusal to stop walking in traffic.
All three were unarmed. All three had histories of mental illness. And all three died last year in a single northern California county, San Mateo.
They were among at least 49 people who died in 2018 after being shocked by police with a Taser, a similar number as in the previous two years, according to a Reuters review of police records, news reports, and court documents.
The deaths typically draw little public scrutiny – no government agency tracks how often Tasers are used or how many of those deployments prove fatal, and coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser's role in the death. But some communities now are considering more restrictive Taser policies following allegations that the weapons were used excessively or deployed against people with physical or mental conditions that put them at higher risk of death or injury.
Among 14 police departments, five are reviewing their Taser policies; three had conducted reviews and made no changes, and five declined to comment because investigations into the incidents were still ongoing.
A total of at least 1,081 U.S. deaths following the use of Tasers, almost all since the weapons began coming into widespread use in the early 2000s have been documented. In many of those cases, the Taser, which fires a pair of barbed darts that deliver a paralyzing electrical charge, was combined with other force, such as hand strikes or restraint holds.
The California county board of supervisors and the district attorney launched ongoing reviews of the use and safety of Tasers, which were touted by police and the weapon’s manufacturer as a near-perfect, “non-lethal” weapon when they began coming into widespread use more than a decade ago.
There is a need to reevaluate “the proper role for Tasers and how and when they are engaged,” Dave Pine, a member of the Board of Supervisors said. Until then, “I personally think it would be appropriate to have a moratorium on their use.”
Most independent researchers who have studied Tasers say deaths are rare when they are used properly, but in a series of reports in 2017, it was found that many police officers are not trained properly on the risks and weapons are often misused.
Axon Enterprise Inc., the Taser’s manufacturer argues that most cause-of-death rulings implicating its weapons are misinformed and said that Tasers, while "not risk-free," are "the most safe and effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement.”
Many cases involved high-risk subjects, such as people agitated by drugs or mental illness, people with heart problems, people who are very young or very old or very frail.
At least half those who died after Taser shocks last year fell into one or more of those categories. As in previous years, about 90 percent were unarmed and nearly a quarter had a history of mental illness.
As police departments have become more aware of Tasers’ risks and limitations, a growing number have restricted their use, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) think tank. Still, many officers remain unaware of the hazards when they encounter those vulnerable to a Taser's shock, Wexler warns.