As TASER Use Grows, So Do Safety Concerns
By Amy C. Rippel and Pedro Ruz Gutierrez, Sentinel Staff Writers
Earlier this month, Alfredo Diaz of Orange County became the 44th person nationwide to die after he was shot with a Taser stun gun by law officers.
Authorities are investigating what killed Diaz and whether the Taser contributed to his death, but his April 18 death is the fourth reported in Central Florida since 2002.
Diaz''s death comes amid renewed scrutiny of the Taser, which has become a popular weapon to subdue suspects among about 4,400 law-enforcement agencies nationwide.
In the three other fatal Taser encounters in Central Florida since 2002, the suspects had drugs in their systems. Autopsies later showed that Tasers did not contribute to the deaths. Yet controversy about Taser use continues.
The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently asked Denver police to reconsider a policy regarding the use of Tasers when the department purchased the weapons for officers. Mark Silverstein, the Colorado ACLU''s legal director, asked police to limit their use of the stun guns because of safety questions.
Silverstein said there''s plenty of proof that Tasers are associated with a growing number of in-custody deaths, may be lethal to people with certain medical conditions, and may contribute to a death, even if the death is not immediate.
The letter to Denver police quoted a 1992 article from the Journal of Forensic Sciences written by a physician who said "pre-existing heart disease, psychosis, and the use of drugs including cocaine, PCP, amphetamine and alcohol may substantially increase the risk of fatality."
Silverstein said agencies have been purchasing these weapons based on the word of the manufacturer that they are safe.
"They have relied on the assurances of the manufacturer, who obviously has a vested interest in selling as many devices as possible," he said Tuesday.
Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, the Arizona company that manufactures the devices, said there''s no connection between drug use and deaths that coincide with a Taser blast.
"This is not a deadly combination. It will not cause any dangerous effects at all," Tuttle said.
He said the incidences of in-custody deaths are simply a matter of increased Taser use nationwide.
"We will be seeing more and more in-custody deaths involving Taser technology due to the sheer numbers of Taser devices on the streets," he said.
Alternative to shooting
Since the Orange Sheriff''s Office introduced the shock guns in 2001, Taser use has gone up dramatically among deputies. In 2001 Tasers were used 228 times, records show. By 2003, they were used 510 times, or 77.6 percent of the time over other forms of weapons, including chemical spray and guns.
Lt. David Ogden, who oversees the sheriff''s training section, credits the Taser for lowering deputy-involved shootings. Last year, Ogden said, deputies would have been justified in shooting 18 more people with guns but instead chose to use their Tasers.
Similarly, Orlando police said officers would have been justified using deadly force with a gun in six of 647 Taser incidents since early 2003, when the department issued the stun guns. Capt. Paul Rooney, who oversees training at OPD, said officers have reported 43 percent fewer injuries since the Taser''s introduction.
Volusia County is the only other Central Florida county with a Taser-related death. In 2002, Frederick Webber, 44, died after being zapped at least twice by deputies who responded to a 911 call about a fight at a campground in Orange City. His death was not attributed to the Taser use.
On April 18, Deputies Charles "Chuck" Plourde and Michael Johnson were responding to a 911 call about a man running naked and acting erratically when they encountered Diaz sometime after 3 a.m.
"My brother''s going crazy," David Diaz, Alfredo Diaz''s brother, told the dispatcher in the 911 call. "[Inaudible] slipped some acid in his drink, and he''s not acting sane. He''s running around down the street."
While David Diaz made the call, other bystanders flagged down deputies to complain about Alfredo Diaz running through the streets, taking off his clothes and shouting, said Capt. Bernie Presha, a sheriff''s spokesman.
Presha said deputies tried to restrain Alfredo Diaz because his behavior, including threatening to kill deputies, indicated he was a danger to himself and others, and his brother told deputies that Diaz may have ingested an unknown drug.
Deputies first tried pepper spray, but it had no effect on him, Presha said.
Then one deputy shot Diaz with a Taser, but Diaz pulled off the electrified darts, , Presha said. The other deputy also shot Diaz with a Taser and subdued him, he said.
After Diaz was handcuffed, he started having medical troubles, was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center and died.
The Sheriff''s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are investigating. And the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner''s Office also is performing toxicology tests to determine whether drugs were in Diaz''s system.
As forensic tests determine whether drugs were a factor in Diaz''s death, other Central Florida agencies are quick to praise the controversial weapons.
"We used them a couple of times when we first got them, and then the word got out," said Groveland police Chief T.R. Merrill, who says Tasers are a deterrent. "We''ve got less people running from us now."