Healthline Connects
Healthline Connects

Death by Taser: The Medicine Behind the Headlines


Baron Pikes of Louisiana, USA, died in January 2008 in police custody after being Tasered 9 times while handcuffed. Winn Parish Coroner Dr. Randolph Williams ruled Pikes death a homicide at the hands of arresting police officer, Scott Nugent, who has since been fired. A Grand Jury convenes this month in Louisiana to determine if Nugent should face criminal charges in Pikes death.

The Taser is a conducted electrical weapon developed and manufactured by Taser International, Inc. (Scottsdale, AZ) since the 1970's. Conducted electrical weapons are less than lethal weapons used by thousands of law enforcement agencies in the US. More than 120,000 private US citizens carry a Taser for personal protection. The Taser delivers an electrical pulse, resulting in tetanus like muscle contractions, and sudden death has been associated with its use.

How does it work? The Taser is a weapon powered by 8 AA nickel metal hydride batteries. When the operator fires the device from a distance of as much as 7 meters (21 feet), 2 9-mm barbs (#8 fishhook), attached to the Taser gun by copper wires are discharged. The barbs may hook the skin, but more often the clothing and the electrical impulse can be delivered through 2 inches of clothing. Once contact is made, an electrical pulse (up to 50,000 volts) is discharged for 5 seconds which incapacitates the subject. More electricity is released as the trigger is pulled again.
Voltage is energy potential - I am no expert on electricity, but apparently it isn't voltage that poses danger - it is electrical current expressed in amps (amperes). The average current of the Taser is 2 amps (maximum US household current is 240 amps and the threshold for ventricular arrythmias is 50-100 amps).

Estimates of 170 deaths since 1999 have been attributed to Taser use, and while intuitively the thinking may be that the cause is cardiac arrythmias, that does not pan out. While Tasers have been tested on volunteer subjects, those subjects are "healthy workers" and are subjected to one 5 second electrical pulse. The population being subdued by the police may be intoxicated or in a stated of excited delirium - i.e. violent and aggressive.

The American College of Physicians (ACEP) recommends that agitated subjects be brought to the ED for medical evaluation and supportive care. As a former ED nurse, trust me, ED staff are used to working with cops and agitated patients. If subjects are intoxicated (alcohol, cocaine, PCP, methamphetamine) or agitated due to psychosis or other unknown reasons, they may be hyperthermic, tachycardic and dehydrated. Supportive medical care - with sedation and intravenous fluids -may prevent death in police custody in these cases. Laboratory studies for drug and alcohol levels and other abnormalities can be done and treated.

The barbs themselves can cause injury and can be treated in the ED as would any other fishhook injury. The ACEP recommends that everyone who has been TASERed be given a head-to-toe examination in the ED to rule out any injuries.


Thank you JamesProvost for use of image Taser Effects.
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