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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Taser warns of risk to heart

Police advised to avoid hitting chest

From Staff And Wire Reports

Stun gun maker Taser International is advising police agencies across the nation to avoid aiming the devices at a suspect’s chest. The Arizona-based company says such action poses an “extremely low” risk of an “adverse cardiac event.”

The advisory, issued in an Oct. 12 training bulletin, marks the first time that Taser has suggested any risk of ill effects on the heart from the use of its 50,000-volt stun guns.

Critics of police use of Tasers on suspects called the bulletin a surprising reversal for the company.

Company officials said Wednesday that the bulletin does not state that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest and that the advisory means only that law enforcement agencies can avoid controversy if their officers aim at areas other than the chest.

Local authorities have used Tasers for years, including in situations in which the suspect later died.

In one of the most controversial cases, Otto Zehm was shocked three times by Spokane police officers who confronted him after receiving a call about unusual activity at an ATM. Zehm was shocked at least twice in his chest during the 2006 incident, according to court documents. He was also struck with a baton and restrained in a manner police referred to in the incident report as being hogtied. His heart stopped at the scene, and he died two days later.

Officer Karl Thompson, the first officer on the scene, faces federal felony charges in the incident, and the city faces a civil lawsuit over alleged violations of Zehm’s civil rights.

In a separate case, Spokane County recently settled a lawsuit for $137,000 involving a deputy’s use of a Taser on Spirit Creager during a 2004 traffic stop. Creager was jolted twice by barbs stuck in his back.

After the Creager settlement was announced earlier this month, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Taser training is regularly upgraded and use of the stun guns has been greatly reduced in the past six months.

Spokane County sheriff’s deputies will receive copies of the most recent bulletin from Taser, and the recommendations will be part of annual training that all officers will undergo at the beginning of 2010, said Deputy Eric Johnson, the department’s master Taser instructor.

He said the advisory from Taser suggests that aiming for the abdomen below the navel, so that one probe goes above the belt and one below, is the most effective use of the device.

It also says damage could come from the projectile hitting the sternum rather than the electric shock, if a projectile hits the chest.

“It doesn’t say ‘never.’ It recognizes it’s more efficient above and below the belt,” said Johnson, who added training has changed greatly since he began as an instructor in 2002.