Police get more tasers despite deaths caused

For Tasers, a teaching moment
Durham police invite public to witness weapon's safety and effectiveness

Stanley B. Chambers Jr., Staff Writer

DURHAM - Sgt. Dale Gunter fell to the ground like a brick after being shocked by a stun gun on Saturday.
As debate rages about the pros and cons of Tasers, Durham police are planning to arm their officers with the stun guns to reduce the number of physical tussles with suspects.

With $135,000 from drug seizure and money forfeiture funds, the police department will buy 100 of the Taser X26 models, weapons that have the capability to record video and sound during a confrontation.

A Taser representative showed off the weapon in front of 30 people at police headquarters Saturday.

Amnesty International, a human rights group, wants law enforcement agencies to delay adding Tasers to their arsenals until studies such as one under way at Wake Forest University are complete.

Tasers resemble handguns and produce jolts of electricity using metal prongs that attach to a person's skin or clothing.

The mark left from a Taser resembles a bee sting. More than 11,500 police agencies use Tasers, company representatives say, including Raleigh, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and the U.S. military.

At the demonstration Saturday, as two men held Gunter, Taser International regional manager Jay Kehoe told the police sergeant to count to 10. Kehoe fired the weapon at four.

Gunter stopped counting, tensed up, winced in pain and fell to the ground in seconds.

"It got awfully hot in here real quick," Gunter said afterward. "Other than that, I'm good."

Durham police studied Tasers for three years by reviewing news reports and talking with police who use them and manufacturers of the weapons.

The factors that pushed the department to plan on adding them to their weapons arsenal for next year included reports of improved technology and records of preventing officer and suspect injuries, said Maj. B.J. Council, uniform patrol commander.

Police will use the weapon in a fashion similar to pepper spray.

"The deterrent value of this is incredible," Kehoe said. "Once the community understands what it is. Sometimes just spark-checking it in front of somebody -- people don't like electricity."

But the weapon has also sparked controversy. Since 2001, more than 150 people have died after being shocked by a Taser, according to a 2006 Amnesty International report. The weapon can produce a risk of heart failure, the report said. The group is concerned about the lack of strict guidelines regarding Taser use and the risk of abuse.

Dr. William Bozeman, associate research director at Wake Forest University's department of emergency medicine, is leading a nationwide study of how the body responds to Taser shocks.

He said those who die after being "Tased" are often found to have had narcotics in their blood, which often is listed as the official cause of death.

Such was the case for Calvin Thompson, 42, a Gastonia man who died in January after Gaston County officers Tased him.

Thompson had been running nude down a street and resisted arrest. The state Medical Examiner's Office ruled that the Taser shock combined with the cocaine in his blood and his heart disease may have helped cause a heart attack, but it was "most likely that the Taser had nothing to do with his death," an autopsy report said. Thompson was ruled to have died from cocaine poisoning, according to the autopsy report.

"If the Taser is going to have a direct electrical effect, it's going to be immediate," Bozeman said.

But the weapon saves lives, said Benson Police Chief Kenneth Edwards, who used his Taser to save a suicidal man armed with a handgun in June. Edwards had the Taser in his hand throughout the incident, hoping the suspect would eventually concede. But when the suspect raised his gun, Edwards fired.

"I was very fortunate, and he was very fortunate that it ended the way it did," Edwards said.

Durham City Councilman Howard Clement, who attended Saturday's demonstration, had concerns. "There's going to be a lot of liability, from the city's end, if there's a situation that doesn't work out," he said.

Bill Anderson, a former InterNeighborhood Council president, thought the weapon would be good for Durham.

"The technology was far more impressive than I thought it was going to be," he said.

Staff writer Stanley B. Chambers Jr. can be reached at 956-2426 or

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