The cause of Otto Zehm’s death is still being investigated.
But because the mentally disabled janitor died after a scuffle with Spokane police, the city has been thrust into an international controversy over law enforcement use of Tasers, a gunlike electronic shock device.
Reports of deaths after Taser shocks have prompted scrutiny of the weapon, which is supposed to be nonlethal, and caused some agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, not to include it among its cache of tools.
Police fired Taser probes twice at 35-year-old Zehm during a March 18 scuffle at a Zip Trip convenience store. Acting Chief Jim Nicks said in a news conference that his officers used appropriate force.
Using a Taser twice on a person isn’t an abuse of the device, said Erin Callahan, director of Amnesty International for the western United States. And while the human rights group contends that Tasers are sometimes used unnecessarily, Callahan said the primary concern is the device’s effect on people who are hit.
According to an Amnesty International report, more than 150 people nationwide have died after being shocked with Tasers since June 2001. Ten Taser-related deaths have been reported since the beginning of this year.
Of the total number of deaths, three – one in 2004 and two in 2005 – can be directly attributed to Taser shocks, according to Amnesty International’s report. The device was a contributing factor in the other deaths, the human rights group says. Other factors included mental illnesses, drugs, obesity and heart disease.
“While coroners had usually attributed the deaths to other factors … there was increasing concern as to whether the Taser could exacerbate a risk of heart failure or other adverse effects in such cases,” according to Amnesty International’s report.
Taser International Inc. reports that more than 98,000 people have been jolted by the device since 2001.
“The number of deaths where Tasers were a contributing factor increased by 27 percent from 2004 to 2005, which is partially due to more police departments using them,” Callahan said. “We are asking police to quit using them until a comprehensive medical study regarding the impact of Tasers can be done. The only medical tests that have been done have been on pigs, and healthy police officers.”
Taser International Inc., the manufacturer of the tool used by more than 7,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada, offers warnings about how the devices can affect people.
Shocks to people who exhibit “excited delirium, severe exhaustion, drug intoxication or chronic drug abuse, and/or over-exertion from physical struggle may result in serious injury or death,” according to a product warning.
Almost daily, reports of Tasers used on the elderly, the young, the handcuffed, the mentally ill or the already compliant are in the news. Among the questionable cases nationwide:
“Seattle police Tasered a woman who was eight-months’ pregnant. She had refused to sign a traffic ticket and walked away from police to use a restroom despite their commands.
“Police in Florida last week shocked a 92-year-old man who was beating his 80-something roommate with an aluminum cane.
“A 30-year-old autistic man in the Chicago area died after being shocked twice with a Taser.
Police departments nationwide say the Taser has decreased suspect and officer injuries dramatically, as well as officer-involved shootings, according to annual reports from law enforcement agencies and Taser International. Despite Taser International’s warning to the contrary, the company and many law agencies say that Taser jolts don’t lead to death.
Taser officials declined to be interviewed. Instead, they referred a journalist to the company’s 2006 report.
According to that company-produced document, the Phoenix Police Department reported suspect injuries dropped 67 percent in 2004. Suspect injuries dropped 82 percent in Austin and 70 percent in Cincinnati. The Seattle Police Department credited Tasers for the fact that there were no officer-involved shootings in 2003; it was the first time in 15 years.
The Taser company report does not discuss the three deaths mentioned by Amnesty International. According to the human rights group, those deaths include:
“An Illinois man who died of electrocution after two Taser shocks, with one of the jolts lasting 57 seconds. Methamphetamine was a contributing factor.
“A Texas man who stopped breathing and died after he was Tasered four times after a fight with his sister and with police. The man had schizophrenia and was delirious, according to a medical examiner’s report.
“An inmate in South Carolina who attempted to attack two corrections officers. He died after being shocked with a Taser six times, with one shock lasting 2 minutes, 49 seconds. A medical examiner ruled the man died of a heart attack caused by the Taser shocks.
Police have said Taser probes were deployed twice at Zehm, who had no previous criminal record.
Each deployment, if the probes made contact with the man’s skin, would have lasted for 5 seconds. Police officials say they aren’t sure if Taser probes penetrated Zehm’s heavy leather jacket. The county prosecutor’s office has not released a security video which may show the incident.
In some cases in which a suspect is extremely agitated, there is no obvious effect from a Taser.
The Spokane Police Department’s policy regarding Taser use is among the strictest in the Northwest, Nicks said. He doesn’t plan on making changes based on the Amnesty International report or Zehm’s death.
According to department policy, each officer who carries a Taser must go through four hours of training and be requalified each year.
The policy says officers should avoid using Tasers against suspects who have weapons, to prevent accidental discharge and for the officer’s own safety. They are also told not to use Tasers on women who are obviously pregnant.
A backup officer with a gun should be present whenever possible, the policy says. Using the probes “should be viewed as a use of force on a parallel with that which would justify the use of blunt impact tools (batons) and munitions (guns). This would primarily occur in the case of an assaultive suspect.”
Many agencies are slightly less restrictive, putting deployment of Taser probes on the same level as pepper spray.
“The departments who have used Tasers when the incident would have required lethal force aren’t the problem. It’s the misuse that’s a problem,” said Callahan.