Taser Nation: Are Cops Using Tasers Too Often?

A series of Taser incidents has raised questions about safety and abuse.

ByABC News
February 12, 2009, 11:17 AM

Sept. 21, 2007 — -- Two incidents this week in which police used Tasers to subdue nonviolent suspects have thrust the popular stun gun into the spotlight again and raised new questions about the device's use and potential misuse by law enforcement officials.

Monday, police in California shocked a 15-year-old autistic boy with a Taser. Two days later, during a speech by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at the University of Florida, officers Tasered a 21-year-old student who refused to stop asking the senator questions.

The weapon -- used by some 11,500 police agencies in more than 44 countries, according to its manufacturer, Taser International -- has been criticized by civil rights groups for years. They have questioned Taser's status as a "nonlethal weapon" by pointing to incidents in which people who have been stunned later died.

While neither of the two suspects in this week's incidents died or were seriously injured, the cases have focused attention on the increasing use of Tasers by police and the widely varying ways that use is regulated.

Who can be shocked, under what circumstances, for how long, and how many times varies from state to state and department to department, a fact that critics say allows for abuse. Taser International, which offers no guidelines on use of the weapons, says this allows police agencies to tailor their use according to local guidelines and case-specific needs.

While on the face of it, shocking a 15-year-old autistic boy with 50,000 volts of electricity for "acting suspiciously" but nonviolently might seem over the top, the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department maintains the device was used for the boy's own good.

"The use of the Taser was definitely justified," Jim Amormino, a sheriff's department spokesman told ABC NEWS.com. "The deputy had two seconds of contact with the suspect before he started screaming and running into traffic."

"If he hadn't been Tasered, he could easily have been killed by a car. The suspect, the officers, drivers on the road and pedestrians all could have been at risk if the suspect continued into traffic," he said.