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Study: TASERs make police work safer

By Charles Rabin
The Miami Herald

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. — Well before University of Florida student Andrew Meyer made ''Don't Tase me, bro'' part of the American vernacular, Miami-Dade County commissioners requested a study on the effect of stun guns on humans.

More than two years later, the results are in: An independent study has concluded that more studies are necessary on the effect of Tasers on children and the elderly.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a national organization made up primarily of police chiefs, also concluded that Tasers ultimately make it safer for police officers to do their jobs.

Though the study was completed in September, its release is timely because of the death of a Coral Gables man who was Tasered last weekend.

Police say Xavier Jones, 29, was causing a commotion and resisting arrest early Saturday at a Coral Gables hotel when he was Tasered and died.

The county's medical examiner hasn't determined the cause of death, but such cases strike at the heart of why the county requested the study: When is it proper to use a Taser?

Lori Fridell, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, believes Tasers should be used only in the most serious of cases.

''But policy is the key to Taser,'' said Fridell, who served as director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum for six years. "It's not a good or a bad weapon.''

The county study was requested by former County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler after a grand jury — convened after a man in a wheelchair died after being Tasered — concluded the weapons were useful crime-fighting tools.

''The community was a little upset,'' said County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who chairs the Public Safety Committee that will see the report Thursday.

At the time, stun guns were a relatively new crime-fighting tool receiving national attention. After a number of deaths, and children had been stunned, many law enforcement agencies ordered policy reviews.

Miami-Dade police are still permitted to stun the mentally ill and juveniles in certain instances.

That galls John de Leon, vice president of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who believes the weapon should be used only as an alternative to deadly force.

''Tasers should be used as a substitute for guns -- not as a control weapon,'' he said.

Taser, which is the most common brand name of what are known as controlled energy devices, or CEDs, entered the local consciousness in late 2004, when county police stunned a 6-year-old at school who was holding a piece of glass.

The incident sparked local policing agencies to conduct reviews. Most still endorse the use of Tasers, but now officers are trained to take age, size and weight into account before firing.

The device releases 50,000 volts through a series of jellyfish-like probes that shoot into the human body. Advocates say it's an effective tool for temporary incapacitation, without causing lasting physical damage.

Because of external factors, it's difficult to determine exactly how many deaths can be attributed directly to the use of CEDs. An ACLU study says there were 148 Taser deaths in the United States and Canada between 1999 and 2005. Amnesty International reported 70 deaths in 2004.

For the purpose of the study, the Police Executive Research Forum — whose president is Miami Police Chief John Timoney -- found 118 deaths between 1999 and 2005, yet concluded a CED to be the primary cause of death in only one instance.

The study concludes that the common link in deaths "does not appear to be the specific actions by the police, but rather the physiologic state by the individual at the time of police intervention."

Copyright 2008 Miami Herald

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