Taser deaths involving law enforcement land Las Vegas at top of U.S. cities list

Las Vegas leads the nation’s cities in suspect deaths involving law enforcement use of Tasers, an Amnesty International study to be released Tuesday concludes.

The study found that between June 2001 and August 2008, seven people died after Tasers were used on them. The figure tops Phoenix, where the study said five people died after Tasers were used on them.

Dalia Hashad, director for the USA program for Amnesty International, said the nonprofit study indicates that more research has to be done in order to determine how safe Tasers are. At the very least, police should not be using Tasers in confrontations with suspects who do not have weapons.

Hashad said the fact that Las Vegas leads the nation with the most deaths is a possible sign that Southern Nevada law enforcement is using the weapon negligently. A Taser delivers 50,000 volts of electricity to the target, which tenses muscles and incapacitates the body.

"Behaving erratically, not responding to police, talking back, these are not invitations to use a Taser," Hashad said. "These are invitations for disaster."

The study said six of the seven deaths followed Taser use by the Metropolitan Police Department. One death involved Taser use by the Nevada Highway Patrol.

Nationwide, 334 people died after they were shot with Tasers. The states of California and Florida had the highest number of deaths with 55 and 52 respectively, said the study.

Las Vegas police spokeswoman Barbara Morgan said her agency began using Tasers department-wide in July 2004.

She said that although there have been incidents in which people have died after being shot with the weapon, she said the Clark County coroner never concluded the use of a Taser was the cause of death in those cases.

"We have no deaths caused by Tasers," Morgan said. "Some of them were narcotics or heart problems."

The study asserted that in four of the Southern Nevada deaths, Taser use was at least a contributing factor.

In 2004, three suspects died in a six-month period after Las Vegas police used Tasers on them. In one of those incidents, a medical examiner did conclude a Taser contributed to the suspect’s death although it was not the primary cause. In three cases, the suspects had either cocaine or PCP in their systems. In one instance, the suspect on PCP was struck with the Taser seven times while handcuffed.

Hashad said one of the more egregious instances involving a Taser happened earlier this year in Southern Nevada.

In early January, 33-year-old doctor Ryan Rich died after a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper fired a Taser at him. Authorities said Rich was fleeing from a trooper when he crashed into the center median on Interstate 15, near the Las Vegas Beltway.

Moments earlier, Rich crashed his pickup into at least two other vehicles.

Rich then fought with the trooper and a passing motorist who stopped to help. Rich attempted to run into traffic when being subdued, police said.

Hashad said the trooper should have never used a Taser on an unarmed man who was most likely disoriented after crashing his vehicle.

"It’s really an unfortunate example of how this weapon is used when really no weapon should be used at all," she said.

Trooper Kevin Honea said Tasers are safe.

"We’ve used them hundreds of times without the same result," said Honea, spokesman for the highway patrol. "They are a very useful tool. They are classified as a less lethal option."

The trooper’s actions were cleared when a coroner’s inquest jury in April concluded that Rich’s death was excusable.

A forensic pathologist determined the cause of Rich’s death was a seizure disorder with other conditions including police "restraining procedures."

Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638.

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