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Taser Death Not an Issue in San Francisco

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San Francisco, CASan Francisco is one of very few cities in the US where officers are not equipped with Taser stun guns. Police Chief George Gascon tried—unsuccessfully—to change that. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Police Commission voted last week not to allow police officers to carry Tasers.

Chief Gascon has said he will not pursue the issue further.

Police have been accused of using the stun gun more routinely than that for which it was designed. Critics claim that many police officers are using Tasers in non-threatening situations as a way to disarm a suspect or control a situation with the least amount of effort.

Health advocates cite the potential connection between the Taser stun guns and the risk of sudden heart attack in Tasered suspects. A lawyer who won a $5 million judgment against Taser International said that the company has known since 2005 the devices were capable of stopping hearts in animals and, later, in humans, but failed to come forward with the information until last year.

The Chronicle reported that one of Taser's own scientific advisers has attributed at least one fatal heart attack in an otherwise healthy person to the Taser. The company has since recommended that police avoid firing the Taser at a suspect's chest.

Prior to the March 3 vote, the San Francisco Police Commission heard from Zian Tseng, a researcher at UCSF. "There is a risk, but there's a smart way of using the Tasers," Tseng said. He cautioned against targeting the chest or firing multiple times and advised that heart defibrillators be made available to revive suspects.

Dr. Byron Lee, a UCSF cardiology professor, warned against "usage creep" by officers, who become more inclined to use a Taser after they see how easily the device stops suspects. "That's where the risk happens, where you don't realize these are potentially lethal and they are used in a haphazard manner," he said, according to the Chronicle.

Vince Repetto, who spoke in favor of Tasers, saw the Taser proposal as "a life-or-death decision." Prior to the vote, the 38-year veteran of the force told the Commission, "It's not if, but when, a Taser is used to stop a knife-wielding suspect and a life is saved. Then you will see the results of your decision. Let us hope that same suspect is not shot dead because an officer lacked a valuable option to deadly force."

Approximately 400 people in the US have died following contact with a Taser since 2001. Taser International has said that most had pre-existing heart conditions or had been using illicit drugs.

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