Keenan Anderson completed his teaching credential program at Antioch University Los Angeles. A father and a teacher, he was committed to helping young people become their best selves. The courses that he took reinforced his social justice point of view and his desire to help young people think critically and to be upstanders, people who stand against oppression, key practices that are part of the Antioch legacy. It is tragic that such a person is no longer with us and no longer a model for the many students he may have influenced. We miss him.
Given his shortened legacy, our best response is to critically examine tasers as a method of restraint by police and evidence of the resulting injury and death of the use of tasers is worthy of a serious examination. The research and reports, however, are contradictory.
What is a taser and how does it work? “TASER” is the brand name of an electroshock weapon that is designed to incapacitate. The word “Taser” has become so popular that it is generally used to describe any hand-held electric-discharging muscle immobilizer. Tasers are sometimes referred to more descriptively as conducted energy devices, conducted energy weapons, electronic control devices or electronic control weapons
There are various models on the market but all are hand-held weapons that shoot barbed dart-like electrodes (often referred to as darts) that are intended to incapacitate a person by paralyzing his or her nervous system. Each Taser cartridge is single-use and contains a nitrogen charge and electrodes, which are propelled by the charge. The darts are attached to the main component with thin copper wires. The darts are designed with pointed tips and are barbed. This helps the darts to pierce the skin and clothing and to remain affixed to the individual.
The taser delivers 19 short pulses per second over 5 seconds, with an average current of 2 milliamps, according to TASER manufacturer Axon. It creates an electric field, which stimulates nerve cells called alpha motor neurons to send an electrical impulse. The impulse travels to muscles and causes short, sustained muscle contractions.
The taser has two modes: the first, pulse mode, causes neuromuscular incapacitation as the neural signals that control muscles become uncoordinated, and muscles contract at random. The second mode, drive-stun, uses pain to get compliance. What else does a TASER do?
In an article from 2012 by Christian Nordqvist, she reported a study by Douglas P. Zipes, M.D. He stated that
“Law enforcement and other individuals using a stun gun need to be aware that cardiac arrest can occur, however infrequently, and therefore it should be used judiciously. An ECD shock delivered through the chest wall can ‘capture’ the heartbeat, taking over the heart’s natural ability to regulate itself. A fighting, fleeing individual might have a normal heart rate of 150, but the ECD shock may increase that rate substantially This can lead to ventricular tachycardia or fibrillation that stops normal blood flow”.
Sports enthusiasts became much smarter about the health of our hearts as Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field after being tackled. The rhythm of the heart when disrupted can cause death.
In 2017 Peter Eisler, Jason Szep, Tim Reid and Grant Smith compiled the most detailed study ever of fatalities and litigation involving police use of stun guns. Reuters found more than 150 autopsy reports citing Tasers as a cause or contributor to deaths across America and have documented a total of at least 1,081 U.S. deaths following the use of Tasers since they began to be used in the early 2000s. Behind the fatalities is a sobering reality: Many who die are among society’s vulnerable – unarmed, in psychological distress and seeking help and showed that many cases involved high-risk subjects, such as people agitated by drugs or mental illness, people with heart problems, people who are very young or very old or very frail
As police departments have become more aware of Tasers’ risks and limitations, a growing number have restricted their use, says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) think tank. Still, many officers remain unaware of the hazards when they encounter those vulnerable to a Taser’s shock, Wexler warns.
On the other side of this issue is Axon Enterprise Inc , the Taser’s manufacturer. They say most deaths involving the weapons are a result of drug use, underlying physiological conditions, such as heart problems, or other police force used along with the Taser.
Axon argues that most cause-of-death rulings implicating its weapons are misinformed and said in an email that Tasers albeit “not risk free” are “the most safe and effective less-lethal use of force tool available to law enforcement.”
And from another point of view from an ABC News report by Dr. Sima Patel (2018 ) the response is also relatively positive. Patel describes the actual electrical process.
The current—either direct, DC, or alternating, AC—is the rate at which electrons going down a wire travel per second. Alternating current is what is typically used in wall sockets and it's more dangerous, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, causing more extreme muscle contraction.
An ampere, or amp, is the unit used to measure current. A small current—200 microamps — applied directly to the heart can cause a fatal rhythm. However, TASER currents don’t reach the heart. Humans have protective mechanisms: The skin, which provides high resistance to electricity, and soft tissue, which surrounds muscles and organs like the heart, also reduce the current.
For people without heart issues, the electrical discharges of the TASER device are too short to affect the heart muscle or cause abnormal heart rhythms. Even for those with heart conditions, the proper use of the device does not appear to cause issues. One of the first studies of TASERs on humans, published by the Academy of Emergency Medicine in 2006, looked at their effect on individuals with a known pre-condition. The study participants were shot in the back with a TASER and researchers measured blood markers of heart damage and did a test called an EKG, or electrocardiogram. They did not find any negative effects.
Complications related to the brain or nervous system are rare, but do occur, including loss of consciousness, seizures, abnormal brain activity and confusion. This is more likely to occur if a subject is shot at a close distance or directly to the head, which is not usually the case since those are not the recommended targets. The probability of causing a seizure is very low.
Dr. Zipes said that “The purpose of this (his) article is not to condemn stun gun use by trained professionals. Law enforcement experts must make those decisions, not physicians.”
To honor Keenan we need to call upon the law enforcement community to re-evaluate tasers, read the research and determine whether the risk outweighs the benefit. Think about what you saw and what you have read and write your concerns to anyone who will listen. It is true that we do not know what effect the taser had on him. We may never know. But given the research it is possible that it was a significant contributing factor in his death. Be an upstander for Keenan and learn about tasers and ask your police departments to investigate their use. It’s the least we can do.