As Taser deaths rise, new policies needed

Something went wrong in the jail in Statesville. A man in custody for allegedly stealing a gift card was shocked with Taser guns, and died later in a hospital. Officers have been suspended. The State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a probe.

Finding out what happened and what caused the man's death is the first order. But it's just as urgent for police to rein in the use of widely carried Taser guns until North Carolina puts in place stricter, consistent policies for law enforcement agencies directing how and when to use Tasers and setting uniform standards for officer training. The medical risks of these popular weapons are not fully known.

Attorney General Roy Cooper should convene a task force for that purpose – now, before someone else dies. In the meantime, he should ask police departments statewide to use Tasers sparingly.

Anthony Dewayne Davidson, 29, of Statesville, died last week after he was shocked multiple times with Taser guns. He was in handcuffs at the time. Mr. Davidson became physically aggressive while being processed for jail, officers said, and was cursing and yelling. That's when officers used one or more Tasers to get him back under control.

That death follows a troubling one in Charlotte. In March, 17-year-old Darryl Wayne Turner died after Charlotte-Mecklenburg police used a Taser on him at a Food Lion store in Charlotte. The officer involved in the Charlotte death was cleared of criminal charges but was suspended for five days for violating the department's policy. He shocked Mr. Turner for 37 seconds, which an autopsy cited as a factor in his death.

That's more than enough proof a time-out is needed on widespread Taser use.

The record shows that most of the time, no physical harm is done when a police officer subdues a suspect with a Taser.

Yet national statistics show a frightening trend. Deaths are edging up. A June study by U.S. Department of Justice cautions law enforcement agencies about repeatedly shocking suspects with stun guns. The study found that many of the deaths they reviewed are associated with multiple shocks. It also warns agencies that the medical risks of Tasers are not known, particularly on youths. It urges agencies not to use them, if possible, on small children, people with heart disease, pregnant women and the elderly.

Many N.C. law enforement agencies have no policies limiting the number of shocks or protecting vulnerable groups, according to the N.C. Taser Project. That needs to change.

A task force is the best way to devise uniform policies on when and how law enforcement departments use Tasers and to set strict, consistent limits. Mr. Cooper should take that step now.

Police officers face risky, unpredictable situations daily. They need effective, nonlethal tools to diffuse potentially violent situations without using deadly force. But N.C. needs to look at training and medical risks for Tasers – now, not later and do more to protect the public.