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Originally published July 1, 2007

A skateboarder refused to leave the St. Mark's Hospital parking lot. A Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy tried to arrest him, but the skateboarder resisted, wrestling with the deputy, who then shot him with a Taser.

Another time, deputies chased a drunken Kearns man into his home - the man yelling, "I'm going to kill you, get my gun and shoot you" - and shot him with a Taser when he swung at them.

With each pull of the trigger, Utah officers are growing more comfortable with law enforcement's latest innovation, the 50,000-volt stun gun. Like duct tape, the weapons have become a fix-all for potentially volatile situations.

A Tribune analysis of more than 180 Taser deployments shows that police used the weapon four out of 10 times to subdue violent suspects, some already in handcuffs, others wielding knives.

But the analysis also revealed Utah police commonly pull the trigger on fleeing suspects, in one case a high school student in possession of alcohol.

Taser International estimates that more than 4,200 weapons have been added to the duty belts of police in more than 130 law enforcement agencies in Utah.

But Tasers remain a lighting rod, condemned by watchdog groups, most recently in May when police fatally zapped a handcuffed Oklahoma City woman.

Taser International insists the weapons are not lethal, noting the company has prevailed in all 51 product liability lawsuits against it.

"Nothing is safe during a use-of-force incident," said Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle. "There is always an inherent risk. But hands-down, the Taser is going to be a safer alternative than pepper spray, K-9 [dog units], punching, bean bag rounds or any other use of force."

Increasingly, police are echoing that message as they tout Taser technology as the future of force for law enforcement.

The Tribune's review found that stun guns indeed have caused few serious injuries in Utah over the past three years. People suffered head wounds, lacerations and lost teeth from falling, and once a seizure, but seldom a life-threatening injury.

Taser encounters proved deadly twice during that period. The state medical examiner ruled both deaths were linked to other factors.

In December 2004, police stunned an Orem man who nearly collided with four cars while driving erratically on U.S. Highway 189 near Heber City. After a protracted fight with police - involving two Taser shocks and pepper spray - the driver, Douglas Meldrum, died. An autopsy ascribed the man's death to heart failure caused by the scuffle and high concentrations of ephedrine in his blood.

Another death occurred in April 2006 when Salt Lake City police mistook Alvin Itula for a fugitive and attempted to arrest him. A fight ensued, police shot him at least four times with a Taser and hit him with pepper spray and clubs. Soon after, Itula stopped struggling. The medical examiner linked his death to a drug-induced delirium caused by high levels of cocaine and methamphetamine in his blood.

Yet critics insist Tasers cannot be written off as not complicit in the suspects' deaths.

Amnesty International levied the strongest rebuke, condemning Tasers as a scientifically questionable weapon - particularly with vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly - that may have contributed to as many as 250 deaths nationwide.

"We believe the jury is still out," said Amnesty spokeswoman Mona Cadena. "There hasn't truly been research to show what happens when you hit the body with 50,000 volts."

Absolutely stunning

Designed as an alternative to pepper spray, batons and bean bag guns, Tasers rely on a surge of electricity to shock unwieldy suspects into compliance.

Like a traditional stun gun, it works when applied directly to a suspect's body. But it also works at a distance, using compressed nitrogen to propel a pair of wire-toting barbs up to 21 feet to zap a target.

While these pistol-like weapons employ 50,000 volts, they emit few amps.

Tasers operate on about 0.0036 amps, compared to the 15 amps found in a typical electrical socket. With the low current, Taser International claims, the stun guns cause a considerable jolt but no long-lasting harm.

But that's a claim that remains debated in the scientific community with peer-reviewed literature on either side published in journals across the globe. So far, researchers have not determined a causal link between stun guns and death.

Yet with thousands of Tasers on Utah's streets, questions linger about whether police are turning too frequently to the weapon.

The Tribune acquired and analyzed more than 180 cases of Taser deployments in the state's most populous cities and counties - a examination that included St. George, Provo, Salt Lake City, Logan and their respective counties. The Ogden Police Department refused to release the documents.

Tasers were most frequently used - 32 percent - on suspects who were resisting handcuffs or struggling while already in police custody.

Of those victims, 61 percent had become physically violent with police. The other 39 percent had resisted handcuffs without violence. Some lay on their hands. Others refused to get out of vehicles or pulled their hands away from police.

Fleeing suspects ranked second on the list - a statistic that worries observers like Daniel Medwed, a former defense attorney and associate law professor at the University of Utah.

Police fired the weapon about 21 percent of the time on people running. The victims' offenses ranged from aggravated assault to car theft to a minor suspected of carrying alcohol.

Medwed called it a "bad use of Tasers."

"The harm to the suspect is far greater than the benefit of law enforcement," Medwed said. "If Tasers were safe, it might be a different story."

Other triggers for Taser use included suspects attacking officers (19.6 percent), assuming a fighting position (7.6 percent) and simply ignoring police (12 percent).

Ken Cooper, director of the New York-based Tactical Handgun Training facility, defended the weapon's use - even on fleeing suspects - as safe and effective for apprehending criminals.

"From my objective opinion, Tasers have saved more lives than Dr. Kildare," Cooper said, referring to the '60s era TV show about surgeons.

Tasers have prevented potential dangerous suspects from escaping, cut down on street wrestling and averted situations that could have turned deadly, Cooper said.

"The main goal of all law enforcement is to gain compliance. You are trying to make sure they aren't going to hurt themselves or others. To do that, sometimes you have to use force."

Boon to the belt?

Yet Tasers haven't always been used on the biggest, baddest criminals, the Tribune's analysis found.

The weapons were used in Logan to stop a fleeing 11th-grader suspected of possessing alcohol.

Police stunned a suspicious bicyclist in South Salt Lake who refused to dismount and fled when confronted by police. The bike was stolen and the rider was carrying drugs, officers later discovered.

Robert C. Wadman, a professor of criminal justice at Weber State University and former police chief, warned against casting judgment. He said the police reports don't always reflect the emotions, fears and perceptions on the streets.

Sure, police make mistakes, he said, but Tasers have proved invaluable for safely taking combative suspects into custody.

"Is it a perfect technology? No," he said. "But this is a technology that enhances police departments' ability to take people into custody in circumstances that may have resulted in a deadly force situation."

The Tribune found several incidents that could have prompted police to use deadly force, such as the Kearns man who in August 2005 swung his fist toward police as if holding a gun.

Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies also used a Taser in May 2006 to subdue a drunken father who unsheathed a hunting knife and lunged for a family member. Officers grabbed the man from behind, but had to use a Taser to get him to drop the knife.

In Millcreek, deputies zapped a man in October 2005 who attacked officers with a metal pole, swinging unsuccessfully at their heads as they tried to enter his bedroom.

Still, Medwed urged caution.

Although the Tribune found few serious injuries, he said the weapons are like Russian roulette when used on people whose health may be compromised by drug use, age or pregnancy.

"It is only a matter of time before something happens," he said.

The Utah American Civil Liberties Union and Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have so far raised no objection to the state's Taser practices. But they hope law enforcement will use the weapons sparingly.

"We are not aware of a problem now," said Kent Hart, past president of the defense lawyers association. "But we would always be concerned - no matter what kind of force is used - that police not use unnecessary force."

The company

Taser International supplies stun guns to 11,000 law enforcement agencies in 44 countries.

Spokesman Steve Tuttle said the company's continued expansion - despite feverish opposition and litigation - reflects the weapon's success in disarming dangerous situations.

The weapon is reportedly 94 percent effective when deployed, the company states.

The Tribune calculated the success rate closer to 82 percent in Utah. Heavy coats, leather belts and baggy clothing have sometimes stunted Taser's effects.

While opposition remains steady - the largest foe being Amnesty International - Taser officials say the product has survived more scrutiny and research than any other police weapon, except firearms.

A company spokesman said the weapons undoubtedly are less injurious than their "Stone Age" predecessors such as batons, dogs and bean bags - a claim they defend with data showing a reduction in officer injuries and worker's compensation claims in police departments across the country.

"Nobody can sit there with a straight face," Tuttle said, "and say we are better off taking Tasers away."

But Medwed said Tasers shouldn't be used like duct tape just yet . . . not when safety questions remain.

"We are marching in a positive direction," he said. "But we aren't there yet."

On Tasers:

This is a technology that enhances police departments' ability to take people into custody in circumstances that may have resulted in a deadly force situation.

- Robert C. Wadman, a professor of criminal justice at

Weber State University and former police chief

On Taser safety:

We believe the jury is still out. . . . There hasn't truly been research to show what happens when you hit the body with 50,000 volts.

- Amnesty International spokeswoman Mona Cadena