August 25, 2004
BC Coroners Service Addresses Deaths Involving Police Tasers
The British Columbia Coroners Service would like to draw attention to recent comments in the media regarding implication of the Taser in four recent deaths. The Chief Coroner is concerned that comments by some individuals and agencies may cause members of the general public to draw premature and unsubstantiated conclusions about the role played by the Taser in such deaths. Chief Coroner Terry Smith stated, "I am concerned that speculation may lead to a general assumption that Taser usage should be abandoned without first ensuring that there is a real linkage between the weapon and these deaths. Such a move may see law enforcement move back to other force options which may present an even higher risk to the public."
During the last 14 months in British Columbia, there have been four deaths of individuals who were involved in circumstances where police deployed a Taser. Each of these incidents is scheduled to be reviewed through the convening of a Coroners Inquest, at which time all of the circumstances of each individual case will be carefully examined. Until such time as these processes have been completed, any conclusions as to the circumstances and cause of death are both premature and prejudicial to the unbiased consideration of the facts of each case.
In each of the four cases in question, initial indications suggest that each of the individuals involved may have been suffering the effects of excited delirium. Excited delirium is known to be caused by psychiatric illness or the over use of street drugs, primarily methamphetamine or cocaine. While there is neither generally accepted theory nor common understanding of the specific physiological processes that result in death, persons who experience excited delirium may experience a number of extremely dangerous psychological and physiological consequences. These may include delusions, hallucinations, hyperthermia (increased body temperature), cardiac arrhythmias, increased respirations, lactic acidosis (altered acidity of the blood), profuse perspiration, and electrolyte imbalance, among others. In combination, these factors present an extremely high risk. Persons suffering these consequences have been known to die even while in hospital emergency wards. The restraint of the individual in any manner and the position of the neck and head of the individual (positional asphyxia) are known factors that further complicate these situations. The use of the Taser may present yet another such complication in providing appropriate intervention in situations where individuals present a danger to themselves and others.
Comments such as "Death by Taser" as highlighted in the media recently can be very misleading. It is important that these deaths be considered against a backdrop of the entire set of circumstances rather than one, unsubstantiated risk factor. In short, we need to await the outcome of more in-depth consideration of all the evidence. That will take place through the completion of the Coroners Inquests.
Additionally, the British Columbia Coroners Service is currently conducting a review of all restraint-related deaths of individuals while in contact with or in the custody of police in an attempt to identify causative or contributory factors which may be common to the majority of cases. Once that initial review has been completed, this agency will work cooperatively with all police agencies and oversight bodies as well as medical and emergency personnel to ensure that all available information is considered so that the most effective and realistic recommendations possible can be advanced for implementation. Our objective is to provide police, EHS personnel, and emergency room staff with the best tools and procedures available in order to prevent such deaths in the future.
For more information on Taser Weapons and additional medical information, please visit www.TASER.com.