Tuesday, July 26, 2005 | 11:08 a.m.
Southern Nevada police departments are defending the use of Tasers in light of a federal lawsuit brought by a police department in Illinois accusing Taser International Inc. of not thoroughly testing the device and marketing it as falsely safe.
The suit, filed by the Village of Dolton in U.S. District Court in Chicago last week, alleges that Taser sells the device as nonlethal "despite the fact that the product has never been adequately or independently tested for safety and has been involved in numerous deaths and serious injuries across the county."
The Illinois-based federal, class-action lawsuit is reportedly the second suit against the company brought by a police department, according to Taser International. The first was brought in U.S. District Court in California by Madera, according to the company.
Metro Police Deputy Chief Mike Ault, a supporter of Tasers, said Metro would likely not join in any litigation against Taser International because Metro remains confident that Tasers are an effective alternative to using deadly force.
"Anything can cause death, but Tasers are an option provided to our officers where deadly force would have previously been the only option," Ault said.
With more than 1,380 Tasers, Metro is the second highest user of the devices in the United States, according to Taser International. It is tied for second with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and is behind only Houston Police, according to the company.
Tim Bedwell, spokesman for North Las Vegas Police, said he couldn't comment on the suit but backed the use of Tasers.
"To us it's a life-saving measure," Bedwell said. "We're responding to a person's actions. We have to use the appropriate level of force, and Tasers give us that level."
He said he didn't believe the company ever misled the department in the lethality of Tasers. North Las Vegas Police classify the Taser as a less lethal device than pepper spray, he said.
The Village of Dolton, a city south of Chicago in Cook County with about 33,000 residents, brought the suit on behalf of its police department.
The suit accuses Taser International of not conducting extensive research on the device and that the safety studies done by the company are "dangerously insufficient."
At least 140 people have died in the United States and Canada after police deployed Taser shocks, according to reports from the Arizona Republic.
Sean Howard, spokesman for Dolton Mayor William Shaw, said part of the reason Dolton filed the suit was to avoid any wrongful death or personally injury lawsuits brought against the city and police department by people or families who claim to have been injured by Tasers.
"We don't want any lawsuits creeping up on us," Howard said, adding that there have been no fatalities or serious injury cases related to police use of Tasers in Dolton.
The thrust of the city's suit, however, centers on the device itself and how Taser International sold it to the department.
Paul Geller, the Florida-based attorney who filed the suit, said Dolton bought Tasers under the belief that it was a safe product because of the way the company marketed it as "non-lethal."
However, he said there is a large body of evidence and studies claiming that the devices are potentially lethal products.
"Taser's safety studies are not to be believed," Geller said.
Among the allegations, the suit recounts previously printed stories accusing the company of being involved or connected to various Taser studies, such as the one conducted by the Department of Defense in which Taser International "provided a bulk of the research," according to the suit.
Dolton recently placed a moratorium on the use of Tasers by its police department, Howard said.
Taser International denied the claims in the lawsuit, calling them "based on inaccurate and incomplete news clippings," said Steve Tuttle, Taser International vice president of communications, via e-mail.
"The Taser brand devices have been the most thoroughly tested of any use-of-force tools available to law enforcement," said Tuttle. "While we understand the concerns of the public concerning the topic of in-custody deaths following Taser usage, there are medical experts who dispute the few cases, out of tens of thousands of life-saving uses, where the Taser device has been cited as a contributing factor to an in-custody death."
Officer Todd Rasmussen, a Henderson Police spokesman, said his department has had no fatalities or serious injuries related to its use of Tasers.
"We monitor the use of Tasers, and to this day we haven't had any incidents with them," Rasmussen said. "It's proven to be an effective tool.'
Despite this, the American Civil Liberties of Nevada has come out strongly against use of Tasers as a "compliance tool" and has denounced several high profile deaths in Southern Nevada attributed in part to Tasers.
Metro has "turned a blind eye to all the evidence in front of them, including the bodies piling up," said Gary Peck, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. "There is no credible evidence that these devices are safe and nonlethal."
The suit brought by the city of Dolton -- along with other police departments that have placed moratoriums on Tasers or revised their policies regarding Tasers -- underscores the need for Metro to re-examine its use of Tasers, he said.
Las Vegas has had several cases in which suspects have died after police deployed Tasers in them. Recently, a Clark County coroner's Inquest jury found a Metro sergeant and Metro officer were not at fault when they repeatedly deployed a Taser on a handcuffed man despite a Metro policy prohibiting such use.
The ACLU is not the only group questioning Taser use. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the largest nonprofit organization of police executives, is also looking at Tasers with a critical eye.
"They're out there and they have a practical application, but there needs to be more study before judged nonlethal," said Albert Arena, project manager at the association's research center directorate.
He said a police department's policy, procedures and training need to be constantly examined to review how Tasers are used. He said, for example, that there is a "susceptible population" that could be seriously wounded or possibly killed by Tasers under certain circumstances.
He said, for example, that a Taser shock could be lethal to an individual with a high level of stimulants in their system who is then restrained and doused with pepper spray. Children, individuals with heart conditions and people handcuffed are also part of the "susceptible population."
"You really need to take a long, hard look at this technology," Arena said.