Officers suing Taser outfit

Staff and wire reports

PHOENIX — Police officers in New Mexico and four other states have filed lawsuits against Arizona-based Taser International Inc., claiming they were seriously injured after being shocked with the electronic stun gun during training classes.

According to Curry County and Clovis City police officials, both departments use the Tasers but the lawsuits have not been filed locally.

Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher said officers are given a Taser “jolt” during training to familiarize them with the impact of the device, but it has never caused injury. He said this training method has been used more than 100 times.

Clovis Police Department public information officer Jim Schoeffel called the devices controversial, but also reported no instances of Taser abuse or injury during officer training.

All of the lawsuits have been filed in the past two weeks, including four in Maricopa County Superior Court here on behalf of officers in Florida, Kansas, New Mexico and Ohio.

The officers allege they suffered “severe and permanent” injuries including multiple spinal fractures, burns, a shoulder dislocation and soft-tissue injuries.

The lawsuits challenge Taser’s principal safety claim and accuse the company of misleading law enforcement about the extent of potential injuries. They also accuse company officials of concealing reports of injuries to at least a dozen other law enforcement officers.

Taser, based in Scottsdale, has marketed the weapons to 7,000 law enforcement agencies and promoted the gun’s safety.

The devices temporarily paralyze people with a 50,000-volt jolt delivered by two barbed darts that can penetrate clothing, but Hatcher said in the county, during officer training, the prongs are taped down.

The American Civil Liberties Union reports more than 130 deaths in the United States related to Tasers, while Amnesty International reports more than 120 deaths in the U.S. and Canada — both figures since June 2001.

However, Hatcher said his own taser research indicates that those deaths are related to other factors. Generally, he said, deaths involving taser guns happen to victims under the influence, who often fall, and hit their heads after being shocked. Schoeffel referenced similar studies.

Taser International has consistently denied its products are to blame in the deaths, arguing that none have been directly linked to Tasers.

The company also contends Tasers have saved thousands of lives — suspects who might otherwise have been fatally shot by police.

In a statement Friday, Taser vice president Steve Tuttle said the company planned to “aggressively fight” all of the lawsuits.

In their lawsuits, the officers allege they were injured in training classes between August 2003 and October 2004.

They say Taser instructors did not reveal any medical information suggesting that the guns could cause injuries and they claim the company has ignored important research suggesting the guns could be extremely dangerous, if not fatal.

The 104-page complaints filed Aug. 5 each allege Taser was aware of injuries to other officers but did nothing to warn police departments, “knowing full well that such a reported serious injury would have devastating ramifications on its safety claims and, most importantly, its most-effective sales tool, the law enforcement training program.”

In defense of the company, Hatcher said his officers follow official taser procedure, which the company distributes with the guns, and still has no qualms with the devices. He views the taser as a “life saving device.”

“There will be issues with any use of force, pepper spray, batons, and even hands on techniques. You have to weigh the benefits against the negatives. Sometimes, in situations were a gun may have been used, we were able to use a Taser and prevent a death,” Hatcher said.

Among the five lawsuits is one filed Thursday by Hallsville (Mo.) Police Chief Pete Herring, who claims he suffered heart damage and two strokes when he volunteered to be shocked while hooked up to a cardiac monitor as a way to demonstrate the safety of Taser to his officers in April 2004.

Herring also claims “painful, permanent and progressive” hearing and vision loss and neurological damage in addition to strokes and cardiac damage.

CNJ staff writer Marlena Hartz contributed to this report.