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Almost all 18,000 police departments in the U.S. issue their officers Tasers, or stun guns, as a non-lethal alternative to subdue people they might see as a threat. But in a five-part series, Reuters documented more than 1,000 incidents since 2000 in which their Tasers have killed people. Peter Eisler, who co-reported the series, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington.
HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:
Almost all 18,000 police departments across the U.S. issue officers tasers, or stun guns, which are meant to be a non-lethal weapon to help police subdue suspects. But tasers have proved controversial partly because, when misused, they can result in death. In a five-part series of original reporting, digging through court documents, police reports and public records, "Reuters" has documented more than 1,000 incidents since the year 2000 when people died after police fired tasers at them.
Peter Eisler is one of the authors of the series and joins me now from Washington.
Peter, I know these are the first five parts. The series isn't over. You're still working on this. But for someone who maybe hasn't seen any of these series, what are you — what are you trying to show?
PETER EISLER, REPORTER, REUTERS:
Well, we set out to sort of look at this question of how many people were dying after they were stunned with tasers and what the litigation burden was associated with these deaths. So, it turned out that there were more deaths, considerably more deaths associated with these things than we had expected, and much more litigation around them than we had thought, and a significant financial burden for the public.
Is there something faulty with the devices? Why are people dying? What's happening in the body when someone gets tased?
You can't really assess their safety without sort of very broad, scientifically controlled studies, and it's difficult to do these studies on the populations that are considered to be most sensitive to these devices — people with bad hearts, people who are suffering through mental health crises.
And so, what have the scientists found when it comes to how — for example, you have one story — just about how this affects the heart?
So, the weapons themselves are not regulated, not as they're sold to police. You know, they're not a medical device. They're not regulated by the FDA. They're not a consumer product, so they're not regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
So, taser itself has done a lot of the — did a lot of the early testing on these devices, and one of the things that we found was that those tests were not necessarily as thorough or as solid as taser may have led police to believe. As time went on and more and more research was done on them, more independent study was done, there were connections drawn, in some cases, between taser shots — particularly long-duration or multiple shots with the taser — and the ability of the weapon to what's called capture the heartbeat, which is to change the rhythm of the heart in a way that could lead to a fatal cardiac arrest.
What do they say in response to your reporting?
Well, certainly, tasers are designed in part as an alternative to firearms which are, you know, expected to be lethal. And Taser says that these weapons have been studied, and that they're overwhelmingly safe. Taser's position is that the risks to the heart are more theoretical. The company does not concede that there has ever been a death direct — a cardiac-related death directly attributable to a taser. What we did was we looked at as many autopsy reports as we could collect on the 1,000-plus cases we identified, and we ended up getting around 750 autopsies.
And we found that in at least 150-plus of those autopsies, the medical examiner, the coroner, attributed the death either in whole or in part to the taser, or listed the taser as a contributing factor to that death.
And what about the police departments out there that have these tasers? It's not just one gun. There are several models of these weapons.
The weapon has evolved over time. The newer ones Taser says are safer than earlier generations of the weapon. Police departments, as you said, the overwhelming majority of police departments in the country have these things. What we have started to see in recent years is police departments beginning to refine their policies and kind of close the window of when they tell officers that it is acceptable to use one of these things.
All right. Peter Eisler of "Reuters", thanks so much.
Thank you very much.
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