Death by Taser [Editorial]

We still don't know all the circumstances surrounding the death of George V. King, a 19-year-old patient at Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital who went into a coma after being struck with an officer's Taser during a struggle with police and security staff May 6 and died a week later. But a report that one of the officers used his Taser five times to subdue the teen should raise serious questions about the appropriateness of the police use of force against an unarmed person who was heavily medicated.

A police spokesman said yesterday that the department had opened a criminal and administrative investigation to determine what role, if any, the officers' actions played in Mr. King's death. We hope investigators get to the bottom of what happened here quickly. The Taser, an electroshock weapon touted as a less lethal alternative to firearms when used by police pursuing fleeing suspects or attempting to take unruly individuals into custody, works by disrupting the voluntary control of muscles, causing a temporary form of paralysis called "neuromuscular incapacitation."

But the key element in that description is the word "less" — as in "less lethal." The devices can still kill, especially when used in so-called "drive-stun" mode, which involves placing the weapon directly in contact with a person's body to administer the electrical shock rather than through the two dart-like projectiles that can be fired from a distance to penetrate the skin. In recent years there have been a number of deaths around the country involving officers who either failed to appreciate that fact or simply ignored it when confronting threatening or uncooperative individuals.

In Mr. King's case, one of the responding officers reportedly did fire his Taser at the teen from a distance after he broke free from what a police source described as eight to 10 hospital staffers who were trying to secure him to a gurney. But when Mr. King continued to resist efforts to place him in restraints, the officer then used the device four more times, this time in "drive-stun" mode, until the teen was given a sedative and eventually passed out. Shortly after that Mr. King went into a coma and never recovered.

It's impossible to judge whether the officer's decision to use the Taser multiple times against Mr. King was justified until the investigation into the exact circumstances of the encounter is complete. Nor is it possible at this point say whether Mr. King might have survived if had the officer employed fewer Taser strikes or fired additional shocks from a distance. Answering those questions will be crucial to determining responsibility for this tragic incident.

Did the responding officers' training include instruction about the difference between the Taser's effects when fired as projectiles as opposed to being thrust against the body? Were the officers adequately trained to follow department guidelines restricting Tasers to situations where their use is "reasonable and necessary" and that forbid "unwarranted and excessive use?" And were they aware that the device's own manufacturer had cautioned against using Tasers more than once against a suspect "unless the officer reasonably believes that the need to control an individual outweighs the potentially increased risk posed by multiple applications?" Or that the use of Tasers against people medicated with certain types of drugs increases their risk of death or serious injury?

As Baltimore City prepares to issue Tasers to every officer on the force, it's imperative for the department to determine how to prepare police to use such devices in cases like Mr. King's, and in the variety of other circumstances in which they might be employed. Whatever the truth may turn out to be in Mr. King's case, the department should be doing everything possible to prevent future deaths resulting from the device's misuse. The only thing that is not in doubt at this point is that this was a tragic incident involving an apparently troubled man who had hoped to attend college but whose life was cut short before he could achieve that goal.

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