The Taser gun--which electrically stuns its victims--has established itself as a reasonably safe weapon for police, but the nation's emergency physicians remain significantly unaware of the device and what it can do to its victims, a Los Angeles expert contends.
Writing in a respected national journal, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Eric Koscove said the Taser is in use or undergoing tests by more than 350 law enforcement agencies. More than 10,000 of the weapons have been sold.
But despite this widespread national deployment, he said, far too many physicians not only don't know how to recognize or treat Taser victims, but many of them--despite considerable publicity about the stun gun--are unaware of the weapon's existence.
Koscove said in an interview that he didn't learn about the Taser until 2 1/2 years ago when, while on duty as an emergency room resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, he encountered a woman who had been zapped with one.
"I asked the cops what this was," Koscove said, "and they said, 'Oh, that's a Taser.' I'd never heard of it. Neither had my attending (supervising) physicians. They just said, 'It's something the cops use.' " He started reading what medical literature was available at the time, he said, and found out that the Taser packs a 50,000-volt wallop.
But while Koscove, an emergency medicine specialist at County-USC Medical Center who has established himself as one of the nation's leading medical experts on the Taser, said he has become confident that initial claims that the Taser is non-lethal are well-founded, at least one major court case pending here has clouded the issue of the Taser's safety.
The case, involving the 1984 death of Raul Guevara Jr., a burglary suspect in Los Angeles Police Department custody, is the only Taser-related death on record in Los Angeles County in which the deceased was not found to be under the influence of a powerful drug.
Two other Taser-related deaths involved suspects on PCP.
Guevara died in January, 1984, in the Police Department's Van Nuys jail facility several hours after he was found to be experiencing acute high blood pressure but was returned to police custody from a hospital despite the diagnosis. Later, Guevara created a disturbance in a holding cell and was shot twice with an apparently malfunctioning Taser before he was overpowered by several officers who used an unauthorized choke hold on him, according to police reports.
Guevara died in a hospital early the following morning. Multimillion-dollar wrongful death suits are pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court and U.S. District Court. The litigation alleges serious misconduct of different types. An autopsy ruled he died of heart failure and his body was free of illicit drugs.
Yet, even with the Taser's role in the Guevara case unresolved, Koscove said the Taser has proved convincingly it is safe and effective.
How It Works
The Taser, developed in 1974, shoots a pair of barbed darts into the clothing or skin of its victims. The darts fly through the air dragging thin wires behind them that are connected to a high-voltage charge contained in the weapon's handle. When the darts strike the victim, the person holding the Taser activates a charge that incapacitates the victim with a brief shock.
The weapon came into widespread use beginning with its deployment by the Los Angeles Police and Los Angeles County Sheriff's departments about 1980. Enthusiasm for the Taser had mounted as law enforcement agencies across the country searched for weapons less lethal than traditional firearms and night sticks.
But there were initial concerns that the Taser could harm people with heart pacemakers or with cardiovascular disease whose heart rhythms could be disrupted by the Taser's charge.
Lost in the initial controversy over the Taser and in litigation that has cropped up periodically ever since, Koscove said, is what he thinks is an important reality: that despite some theoretical dangers from the Taser, "if the cop shoots, the guy will be dead or partially disabled. With the Taser, we don't see that. We don't seen hands blown off. We don't see dead people."
Southern California law enforcement agencies say the Taser has developed deterrent value of its own among lawbreakers who are fearful of the intense shock it causes. And quietly, the Taser has passed significantly beyond the experimental category and into use nearly as routine as the police service revolver.
Koscove said he recommends a routine electrocardiogram for anyone hit by Taser darts. Emergency medical personnel should take care to remove the darts carefully if they have penetrated the skin--simply by pulling them out. Taser victims with pacemakers or a heart disease history should be observed carefully, he said.