Tasers and another fatality

Sadly, here we go again.
Another person with a mental illness from Fairfax County, Virginia, where I live, died in an incident with the police on Friday. This time it was after he was shot with a Taser stun gun.
The police responded at 12:41 a.m. to a report that a man was in “psychiatric distress.” When they arrived, he was naked and “uncooperative.” He ignored officers’ commands and became combative, the police said. At that point, an officer shot him with a Taser to bring him under control. The man stopped breathing and died.
After my son, Mike, was shot by police with a Taser, I received a number of emails from people who were angry about how frequently Tasers were being used, especially when the police encountered someone with a mental illness. Several of these folks said they believed the police relied too heavily on Tasers rather than using de-escalation techniques learned during Crisis Intervention Training classes. These techniques can be used to calm down some psychotic persons without force.
Part of the reason why the media reported this recent fatality is because another man died in January after being shot by the same police department with a Taser.
I’m not certain how I feel about Tasers.
Clearly, they can be deadly. However, when I was in Miami doing research for my book, I watched two CIT trained officers use   Tasers to subdue a psychotic man armed with two knives. No one was hurt. The officers told me that before Tasers — this man would have been shot with a handgun. When I spoke to the man in jail, he told me that he was grateful that he had not been killed.
The reason why this most recent shooting frustrates me is not because it involved a Taser, but because it was the third incident in my “backyard” where a person with a mental disorder has been critically wounded or has died in an exchange with the police. 
Last November, a 52-year-old man with bipolar disorder was shot to death by the Fairfax Police after he took flowers from outside a business and drove away. He didn’t stop or step-out of his truck at a red light as ordered — so a young officer opened fire, killing David Masters, who was unarmed.
In February, a 25-year-old man was severely wounded when his parents called the police for help because their son was having a crisis. Ian C. Smith is still in intense care.
Obviously, CIT training can reduce the number of violent and fatal incidents that happen when law enforcement officers are called on to deal with someone who is having a mental breakdown. I am a strong proponent of CIT and am looking forward to attending the International Crisis Intervention Training conference in San Antonio, Texas, this coming June where I will give a  speech. But even with good CIT training, people still get hurt. A well-trained CIT officer was at the scene when Ian Smith was critically wounded. 
Over the years, I have heard lots of statistics, such as “1,205 people die from smoking every day.”
I wonder how many persons with mental illnesses are wounded or die each year during encounters with the police?
I wonder how many officers are injured or die each year because of encounters with persons who are in the midst of a psychotic breakdown?
When I hear about an incident such as what happened Friday, I think of Mike. I also think about the dozens of parents I’ve met whose loved ones have been injured or died in similar encounters.
These incidents make me sad and angry because, I believe, if we had better laws and adequate mental health treatment in our communities, there would be fewer and fewer such stories.
Another person with a mental illness has died in my community for no other reason than he became ill.
That’s wrong and it is tragic, because it could and should have been prevented.
 
*****
 
I launched this blog in January and am having a wonderful time writing it. I look forward to posting my rants and raves, sharing information, and raising questions that I think need to be addressed. Because I am currently writing a new book for Simon and Schuster publishing, I’ve decided to cut back to one post per week, rather than three. Don’t worry, I still have much to say, but I have a deadline approaching that I can’t miss.
Several thousand of you read this blog each month. Thank you for helping make it worthwhile. More importantly, thank you for caring about mental health reform and my books. Together, we can make a difference and give a voice to persons seldom seen or heard.
About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

Comments

  1. Thank you for all of your blogs. Go concentrate on your book now. We will be here waiting for the next great thing you write — blog, op-ed, book, screenplay…. Go Pete! Can't wait to read the new book.

  2. John L. says

    I had been trying to post to your 'Pete Earley' website but the posting area is malfunctioning and won't display the headings for the blocks. Perhaps that site is obsolete?

  3. Bob Johnson says

    While many of your points above are noted, I want to focus on the title re: “Tasers and fatality/lethality.” It should be noted that Dr. Zipes (2009, in his testimony of Butler vs. Taser) discovered that taser did not conduct the proper due dilligence regarding science, safety and application – taser issuing a “no chest-shocks” warning in Sep 2009 as a result (and after almost 500 deaths in the US). The key here is that high power and low frequency equals lethality; the technology is toted as less-lethal but the above number proves otherwise. The key questions here should be why don't law enforcement officers accurately measure the output of devices (taser, of course, now wants to develop their own criteria for this – how convenient…) before they go out on shift; they do it for radar guns and breathalyzers? Why aren't forensics done on a device, post incident (who does the medical examiner work for…might be part of the answer)? BTW, Taser uses “spark-gaps” in their technology…did we forget that items with spark gaps wear out (ie – spark plugs)! So, what's coming out of the end of an M26 or X26? If the electrical standard (IEC479) used by taser is supposed to show a comparison of thresholds (the standard is also for “at the skin-contact,” whoops!), why did they create “their own” standard graph within their Medical Safety Information which switches the X/Y axis and uses a totally different constant (pulse width, which has no connection with duration and body current as used in the IEC std) – yet references the IEC479 standard? Did I mention that taser is invasive (under the skin) and you can't measure electrical resistance in the body…! I think you get the point here…a company should conduct the proper due-dilligence regarding safety before going to market! The last point relates to redefining the “force continuum” which dictates proportionate response and force by officers within an incident. Taser devices (related to “taser speak” which hails use tasers often…because they save lives…) are now being used at an alarming rate (and we now know the technology is lethal and training off track as well) and right after verbal commands. Dept's should demand their money back for the false claims or put the devices in their arsenal of lethal weapons…how many people need to die IOT determine their lethality – 500, 1000?

  4. Anonymous says

    Pete-

    I found your piece about Tasers continuing to reinforce my personal belief that they are overused- unfortunately, my evidence is anecdotal.

    When Tasers were first introduced several years ago I learned that it was being used on people with mental illnesses in crisis, and touted as a safe way to deal with a potentially dangerous situation without using lethal force(potentially, and tragically not in the case you wrote about). The local sheriff where we live is a friend and I asked him what he thought about using Tasers on people who were experiencing psychotic episodes. He said that he instructs is deputies to use their Taser as a last resort- and he means it- because he’s concerned about the trauma it can inflict on people with mental illnesses especially those in crisis.

    He offered to let me experience being Tasered and I agreed because while I appreciate the fact that it is a potentially non-lethal form of intervention, I was concerned about the trauma it can inflict upon someone, especially someone experiencing psychosis.

    I will tell you that the pain is beyond words, as I’m sure Mike has told you. It is the single most painful experience I’ve ever endured, the five seconds which felt like an eternity. It’s as if every bone in your body is being shattered over and over again.

    I wasn’t experiencing psychosis, but it nonetheless left me very traumatized.

    My point? If CIT is available in a community, and a Taser is used upon an individual with mental illnesses, that agency darn well better be able to show that this was a situation where CIT techniques either wouldn’t have worked, or it was tried and didn’t.

  5. anonymous says

    Thought you might find this of interest

    Woman accused in Target knife attack suffers from mental illness, family says
    May 4, 2010 | 6:47 am

    The family of a woman accused of stabbing four people at a Target in West Hollywood said she suffered from mental illness.

    Layla Rosetta Trawick, 34, of Antioch, Calif., entered the store at La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard after noon and picked up two knives, apparently merchandise from the store.

    Detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are still trying to determine a reason for the attack, which left one customer in critical condition and three others was lesser injuries.

    An off-duty deputy shopping at the store appeared to have stopped the attack, authorities said.

    Family members of the suspect told KABC-TV that she suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and that they had been trying to get her help.

    “I've been trying to get her institutionalized for years, and the mental hospitals just keep releasing her. She's been in and out of them since she was 16,” said a woman who identified herself as Trawick's mother.

    Entertainment journalist Allison McNamara was shopping at the store when she encountered a screaming woman in the aisle that separated the skin-care and kitchen sections.

    “She was yelling 'I'm bipolar. There's no witness protection program.' “

    McNamara said she watched helplessly as the woman plunged a knife into the upper back and shoulder of a male shopper. He had crouched down and covered up to fend off the blows, she said.

    “You could see where the knife was going into his back. The knife had ridges and a tag on it. She was going as fast and strong as she could. Four to 6 inches were covered in blood. She looked like she was going to stab everyone there,” McNamara said.

    Moments later, the woman looked straight at McNamara, who immediately bolted out of the store with other shoppers and employees. McNamara immediately sent out a Twitter message telling people what she had seen.

    Authorities credited Deputy Clay Grant Jr., who was off duty, with preventing additional casualties. Grant was at the Target shopping for paper towels on his day off when he heard screams.

    Customers began racing past him toward the exit. “Somebody has a knife,” he heard someone in the crowd say.

    Out of the cosmetics aisle he saw a young woman wearing a halter top and flowery pants with a steak knife in one hand and a butcher knife in the other.

    Grant, 26, drew his Beretta service weapon and identified himself to the woman as a sheriff's deputy. He demanded she drop the knives. The woman, he said, ran down the aisle, turned and dashed past four other aisles.

    “Drop your knife,” he ordered again.

    She turned, her expression blank and confused, clutching the knives. He said, relying on his training, he decided that from a distance of about 20 feet she was no danger to him and chose not to pull the trigger.

    The woman saw his gun and dropped both knives on the floor.

    Grant and Target security officials restrained the woman, then handcuffed her.

    Hours later, after recounting the incident to his worried mother, Grant said he didn't feel like a hero.

    “I just come here to do my duties,” the soft-spoken deputy said.
    — Andrew Blankstein and Robert Faturechi

  6. tonyl23 says

    Taser is an acronym, named for a fictional weapon: Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle and is a registered trademark. It comes from the Tom Swift novel series from the early 1900's. Just a fun fact.

    Tasers are considered “less than lethal”, but so are rubber bullets and those can kill you too.

  7. This guy was naked and confrontational. He was not armed. It is easy to be an arm chair quarterback, but why did the police use a taser? Why not use pepper spray?

  8. Villager says

    I think that you are dead on when you surmise that tasers are being overused by police officers around the nation. You noticed the recent taser-deaths because they occured in your local area. Did you know that police are killing people (men and women) on average of once per week over the past 16 months in American?

    Yep — 72 deaths since Jan 2009 alone!

    Something is wrong…

    peace, Villager

  9. evan234 says

    Check out this Taser cartoon at
    http://www.uclick.com/client/wpc/ta/

  10. Dear Pete, my brother recently went through a similar experience. He was suicidal and out-of-control, but not a danger to others. The police responded by taze-ing him, despite the fact he was unarmed at the time and had a VNS implant. We are going through your helpful links, but would really like to be able to talk to you about this, too, if you have a moment. You can reach me at [email protected] Thank you.

  11. davealmeida says

    One point that I think needs bearing in mind is that the same bad information that we are given about the non-lethality of Tasers and their effectivness in dealing with situations that might otherwise require the use of a firepower, is also being given to law enforcement officers. I'm not saying that the Taser isn't being overused, but I am reluctant to conclude that the majority of the law enforcment community is using the devices while conciously being aware that the consequences might be the opposite of what they have been told to expect.

  12. Dear Pete, my brother recently went through a similar experience. He was suicidal and out-of-control, but not a danger to others. The police responded by taze-ing him, despite the fact he was unarmed at the time and had a VNS implant. We are going through your helpful links, but would really like to be able to talk to you about this, too, if you have a moment. You can reach me at [email protected] Thank you.

  13. davealmeida says

    One point that I think needs bearing in mind is that the same bad information that we are given about the non-lethality of Tasers and their effectivness in dealing with situations that might otherwise require the use of a firepower, is also being given to law enforcement officers. I'm not saying that the Taser isn't being overused, but I am reluctant to conclude that the majority of the law enforcment community is using the devices while conciously being aware that the consequences might be the opposite of what they have been told to expect.