In December 2002, while responding to a 911 call about a knife-wielding woman, officers found a 71-year-old man restraining her. The knife lay out in the open, so Officer Leo Besner drew his taser and ordered everyone to the ground.
The elderly hero, Charles Lincoln, dropped down on his hands and knees, but, fearing for his fragile bones, refused to lie flat on his stomach. After several commands, Besner blasted him with 50,000 volts, causing the man to "yell and scream," according to the police report.
"It hurt like hell," Lincoln later told police. "It fucked me up."
In last week's cover story, WW noted that several cops have expressed concerns about the bureau's increasing use of tasers. WW's investigation found that despite having only 62 tasers, Portland cops blast more people each month than larger cities with far more of the electrified stun guns. (See "Is the Portland Police Bureau Going Taser-Crazy?" Feb. 4, 2004.)
Much of the concern centered on the practice of using the devices on people who, like Lincoln, simply disobeyed an order. But Lincoln's experience is troubling for another reason: his age.
At least 37 people in the United States have died after being tased, according to Taser International, the leading manufacturer of the devices. Steve Tuttle, a company spokesman, claims that the deaths were all strictly coincidental and had "absolutely" nothing to do with the device.
But even he says some selectivity is in order. Tasing elderly people "might be a bad idea," he says, "just because that person is feeble."
It's not just old people who are at risk, says Dr. Robert Greifinger, former head of New York's correctional health department. He says rapid, taser-induced muscle contractions causes blood-sugar levels to plummet, causing a risk of coma and death in people who are diabetic. Also at risk: those who are agitated or under the influence of stimulant drugs--in other words, the exact type of people who are likely to find themselves tasered by cops.
Tuttle insists the taser is safe, even to epileptics and heart patients. He says the taser has been shown not to induce seizures, nor does it cause people to lose control of their bowels or bladder. His statement is at odds with Portland police reports, which show that four people have wet or soiled their pants after being tased and one person had a seizure in the back of the police car.
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch is not only suspicious of the claim that the 37 deaths are purely coincidental, he also is concerned about secondary injuries. Already one person has required stitches from falling on his head onto a rock after being tased.
In other words, Portland's policy on tasers--which allows them to be used relatively indiscriminately, compared with other cities--could have a cost. In Virginia, two prison doctors implicated a stun gun in a diabetic inmate's death, leading to $1.45 million in settlements.