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Taser warns police to avoid chest shots when using their stun guns

In the five years that Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies have been using stun guns, Taser International has maintained that the weapons are a safe alternative to deadly force.

But in a recent memo issued nationwide to police agencies, Taser says that shocks to the chest pose a small risk of injury and police agencies could protect themselves from lawsuits by avoiding the head, neck and chest.

Their advice: Aim lower.

While some local agencies have already ordered their officers to do just that, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor seemed puzzled by the memo. She said her agency is still deciding what to do.

Police are trained to always aim for "center mass" when shooting or stunning a subject — which typically means the chest. To have Arizona-based Taser International now suggest aiming lower — especially with an unwieldy Taser shot — seems odd, Castor said.

"I mean, where else are you going to aim if they say 'no chest' and then when you shoot the thing, it spreads out?" Castor said Thursday, demonstrating with her hands the difficulty of aiming at another area. "So, we're going to have to figure out what the deal is with that."

Taser International calls the recent revision to its training manual a "slight change." Aiming at the mid-lower torso may better incapacitate a suspect by affecting the legs. Shots to the back remain the preferred area when practical, the manual says.

"There is no significant shift, just a slight change by literally a few inches when intentionally targeting the preferred target zone, and is qualified by 'when possible' and 'unless legally justified,' " said Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle.

The St. Petersburg and Clearwater police departments have already changed their policies to reflect the new recommendations. Others aren't sure yet what it means for their procedures.

Castor said there exists a large margin of error in firing a Taser, especially if the officer or suspect is running.

"The farther away you are, the farther those prongs spread," she said, "so there's a lot of misses with Tasers."

Rick Guilbault, vice president of training for Taser International, recognizes there are variables when using the device.

"Law enforcement officers are required to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are fast moving, tense, uncertain and/or fluid," Guilbault said in a memo.

TPD spokeswoman Laura McElroy said each agency in Hillsborough uses the same standard operating procedure for Tasers. The rules already called for avoiding the head and neck, she said. If a prong does strike a person's face, neck, head, groin or a female's breast, Hillsborough authorities are taught to allow medical personnel to remove it.

For the time being, TPD's officers will continue using Tasers as they have, Castor said.

The Pinellas Sheriff's Office also has the new guidelines and is reviewing its policy.

Clearwater police changed its policy last week. St. Petersburg Police's new policy took effect Sept. 7, when the training major sent a memo to all sworn officers updating department policy on authorized use of a Taser.

Among things for St. Petersburg officers to consider once deciding to fire a Taser: Give a verbal warning when feasible; discharge at a lower-center mass for shots to the front of the body; discharge at center of mass for shots to the back of the body.

"It is important to note that the preferred target zone does not mean that other areas are prohibited," Taser's memo said.

Groups like Amnesty International continue to question Taser safety and advocate for their use only as an alternative to deadly force and not as a routine tool. Last year, Amnesty said California and Florida had the highest number of deaths — 55 and 52, respectively — of Tasered people. Southern regional director Jared Feuer said more than 350 people have died after being Tasered.

"Nobody truly knows why people are dying after they're being Tasered, and these new recommendations from Taser show that they're also concerned about the potential impact," Feuer said.

Amnesty International wants the government to conduct a study on deaths after Taser use and create regulations.

In Hillsborough County, Roney Wilson, 46, died last year after being shocked by a Taser three times. Wilson had barricaded himself in his mother's truck in Plant City and smashed out the windshield when his family called 911 for help.

A medical examiner said Wilson's cause of death was "agitated delirium," a controversial diagnosis frequently associated with Taser-involved deaths. But the doctor couldn't say what role the Taser played.

In Taser's first product liability defeat, a California jury concluded last year that repeated electrical shocks from a Taser caused so much acid to build up in Robert C. Heston's body it sparked cardiac arrest. A federal judge ordered Taser to pay $1.4 million in attorney fees to Heston's family.

Taser planned to appeal.

"Taser has long stood by the fact that our technology is not risk free and is often used during violent and dangerous confrontations," Tuttle said.

"We have not stated that the Taser causes VF events (ventricular fibrillation, a potentially fatal abnormal heart rhythm) in this bulletin, only that the refined target zones avoid any potential controversy on this topic."

Guilbault said Taser International will continue supporting customers in legal proceedings, even in cases where probes strike outside the preferred target area.

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Rita Farlow contributed to this report.

Taser warns police to avoid chest shots when using their stun guns 10/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 11:29am]
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