Although more than a year has passed since someone died in Montgomery County Police custody after a Taser was used during an arrest, doubt remains about the safety of the devices.
Police officers should change their procedures in how they deal with people exhibiting erratic behavior to reduce the need for Tasers and ultimately prevent deaths, said Mike Mage, co-chair of the Montgomery County American Civil Liberties Union.
“When you see a disturbed person or unusual behavior occurring, your first thought should not be ‘This is illegal and we have to arrest this person,’” he said. “It’s not really a crime situation. It’s a medical emergency situation. … Their first response should be to get medical backup.”
Mage also thinks that, if police continue to use Tasers, they should be made to carry defibrillators in their patrol cars to treat episodes of cardiac arrest that he said could result from use of the devices.
Officer Scott Davis, a Montgomery County police Taser instructor, dismissed Mage’s idea, citing county police policy stating Tasers only can be used to protect officers or subdue a potentially dangerous or violent person when the officer thinks other methods have been or will be ineffective. Officers often deploy Tasers on suspects who could harm themselves or others, including responding officers, Davis said.
“When that person is completely violent and when they’re attacking us, there’s no other way to go; we have to subdue that person,” he said. “Our job is to try to get that person into some kind of restraint and keep them from hurting themselves or others.”
Neither Davis nor Dr. David Fowler, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, have ever heard of anyone suffering from cardiac arrest as a direct result of being stunned by a Taser.
Delric Tyrone East, 40, was the last person to die in Montgomery County Police custody after a Taser was used in his arrest. Karreem A. Ali died October 2010, the only other person to die in police custody after a Taser was used in an arrest. But these deaths, while troubling, hardly constitute a pattern, Davis said.
County police used Tasers in 171 incidents last year and 62 so far this year, Davis said. Of the 1,159 officers on the county police force, 580 are certified to carry the X26 model Tasers used by the department, Davis said.
Electronic control devices such as Tasers incapacitate targets by delivering a high, 50,000-volt shock at a very low .162 amps, according to Taser’s specifications.
The shock temporarily disables a person’s central nervous system and causes uncontrollable spasms in muscle tissue, according to the X26 manual. Although such a shock usually is enough to drop even the most agitated person immediately, it is not sufficient to interrupt a person’s heartbeat, Fowler said.
Fowler thinks that restraint might be the true cause of most sudden in-custody deaths, not Tasers. Whereas the effects of a shock-induced heart problem would take place immediately after the shock, most in-custody deaths take place as long as a half hour after the person has been subdued and restrained, Fowler said.
“Most of these people are arrested, they stop struggling, and then, several minutes later, police notice that they are unresponsive,” Fowler said. “It’s not the Taser that’s common to all of these deaths. It’s the restraint.”
Fowler thinks the deaths can be better labeled as a medical phenomenon called excited delirium. The fear of being restrained — often exaggerated by the presence of drugs and other intoxicants in a person’s bloodstream — and pre-existing heart conditions, are the main catalyst for such deaths, he said.
Although not fully understood as a medical condition, symptoms of excited delirium often include a sudden spike in core body temperature within a half hour of restraint, Fowler said. Some hospital patients reached 108 degrees, he said. Reports of such deaths date back to the 1800s from mental patients subdued by orderlies, Fowler added.
A study of the phenomenon as it related to police officers was undertaken in the 1980s after Seattle-based medical examiner, Dr. Donald Reay, noticed a pattern of prisoners dying shortly after arrest. Reay quickly determined that hog-tying, where a person’s hands and legs are tied together behind their backs, was causing the deaths, Fowler said.
“So they stopped hog-tying people, and do you know what happened? People kept dying,” Fowler said, adding, in the decades since, everything from officers putting pressure on a person’s chest to pepper spray has been blamed for sudden in-custody deaths.
“Then you end up with the Taser coming along and all of the sudden, they are the reason people are dying,” he said. “[In reality] it’s just the new kid on the block.”
For many officers like Davis, there’s no perfect solution to excited delirium cases because the condition is not easily distinguished from drug-induced psychosis and often strikes without warning. Part of every Taser-certified officer’s training involves watching video footage of an in-custody death event and how it was handled by different police agencies.
Emergency rescue officials are looking for new ways to reverse the near 80 percent mortality rate linked to confirmed excited delirium cases, but without sufficient technology to distinguish excited delirium from other emergencies, progress is slow, said Assistant Chief Scott Graham, a 24-year veteran EMT with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
“I have no tool in my toolbag to diagnose you with excited delirium as opposed to cardiac heart disease,” he said. “I could assume that it’s excited delirium, but we have a very strict protocol that tells us how to treat a person experiencing cardiac symptoms … if your heart is going too fast, I use this drug; if your heart is going too slow, I would use this drug.”
One of the most common treatments to stimulate a stopped heart is to inject it with adrenaline, a widely practiced procedure that actually would hasten death in cases of excited delirium, Graham said.
“Our changes in treatment are driven by medical research,” Graham said. “Unfortunately, many, many, many people may die of a particular disease before practices are changed.”
Until a policy is developed, police are doing their best to prevent the deaths of anyone taken into their custody from a medical event, excited delirium or otherwise. Although police do not automatically call an ambulance whenever a Taser is used, the often violent nature of such calls means an ambulance will be summoned, anyway, Davis said.
EMTs were the first to respond to the scene after East, who was later found to be high on PCP, drove his car into a concrete barrier on Md. 29 in Briggs Chaney, according to police reports. East was fighting medical personnel as they were trying to remove him and his girlfriend from the vehicle when he was Tasered by responding police.
“One death is obviously unacceptable,” Davis said. “But then again there’s what they call the perfect storm, and we see that nationally. You can do everything right and that person will still end up dead.”