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Taser maker's contentions lead to SEC inquiry

Taser International, the company that makes stun guns used by police in the Tampa Bay area and across the country, is the subject of an "informal inquiry" by federal authorities over safety claims made by company officials, Taser announced this week.

The Securities and Exchange Commission is looking into whether statements made by company officials defending the stun guns' safety are consistent with findings from studies on the devices, touted as an alternative to lethal weapons.

Taser officials began insisting their stun guns are "generally safe and effective" last year amid a flurry of reports questioning the guns' safety after the deaths of suspects nationwide on whom Tasers were used.

On Friday, Tom Smith, president and co-founder the Scottsdale, Ariz., company, reaffirmed the past statements about the weapons, which emit a charge to attack the central nervous system and temporarily immobilize a target.

"We fully stand behind the statements we've made regarding the studies," Smith said. "We've not seen any study come back with any risk identified in the use of the technology yet.

"There's much ado about nothing," Smith said. "It's simply an inquiry. We're happily complying."

An SEC informal inquiry falls below an investigation, which would give investigators subpoena power.

Tampa Bay area police departments, which have begun using the guns increasingly in recent years, said they would await the SEC inquiry's outcome before deciding whether to tinker with written policies on the weapons.

"We will monitor that situation and see what comes out of it," said Mac McMullen, a spokesman for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, which owns more than 400 Tasers.

While Taser officials have insisted their products have never directly caused death or serious injury, some newspaper reports have linked stun gun use to deaths.

In December, the Arizona Republic said medical examiners had cited Tasers "as a cause or contributing factor" in six deaths and said the gun "could not be ruled out in two" others.

Some medical experts say the 50,000-volt Taser shocks increase the risk of heart failure among people who are agitated, use drugs or alcohol or have other health problems.

Last May, a 40-year-old Seffner man died shortly after Hillsborough sheriff's deputies shot him with a Taser and handcuffed him. The Hillsborough medical examiner's office said Henry J. Lattarulo's death was accidental, caused by cocaine-induced agitated delirium.

Several other deaths of suspects who were with Tasers also involve possible drug use or underlying medical problems. In Florida, three men died in December alone after police used Tasers on them in separate incidents.

A 19-year-old man died after Collier County sheriff's deputies shot him with a Taser and doused him with a pepper-spray-like substance. Autopsy results are pending.

A 36-year-old man died after Hollywood police shot him with a Taser. A medical examiner on Thursday attributed his death to a cocaine overdose, saying the victim had five times the toxic level of the drug in his system.

A 31-year-old man died after being shot twice with a Taser by Delray Beach police during a struggle. Police reportedly have said they believe think the man's death was related to drug use.

Last November in Miami-Dade County, police were criticized after officers used Taser guns to subdue a 6-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl.

Police said the boy had cut himself twice with a shard of glass and was threatening to harm himself again. Police say the girl, suspected of skipping school, was fleeing officers.

Steve Rothlein, deputy director of Miami-Dade police, said revisions of the department's policy on Tasers should be completed within a month. Rothlein declined to detail the revisions.

The SEC inquiry could prompt additional changes, he said Friday.

"We'll certainly be mindful of anything that occurs with the SEC," he said. "We'll keep an open mind and review that information."

Still, Rothlein and other Florida police officials said Friday their departments were pleased with Tasers and planned to use them indefinitely.

"It's a good product and has the potential to reduce injuries to the people we arrest as well as the officers themselves," Rothlein said.

Debbie Carter, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, said: "Right now, we're very happy with using the Tasers."

Wayne Shelor, a Clearwater police spokesman, said his department was "comfortable" with the stun guns and found them to be a "remarkable tool."

On Friday, a Securities and Exchange Commission spokesman declined to confirm the inquiry, which also is focusing on the timing of a $1.5-million sale Taser made to a firearms distributor to possibly inflate fourth-quarter sales in 2004.

Smith, Taser's president, denied any wrongdoing. "It's business conducted _ produced and shipped _ in the fourth quarter," he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Marcus Franklin can be reached at mfranklinsptimes.com or (727) 893-8488.

Supported by fellow officers Tim McGinnis, left, and Terry Gonzalez, right, Tampa police Officer Tony Gutierrez receives a shock during a Taser training exercise in August. Tampa officers were given a one-second burst of electricity from the stun gun.

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