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Taser Electronic Control Devices and Sudden In-Custody Death: Separating Evidence From Conjecture

***** Taser Electronic Control Devices and Sudden In-Custody Death: Separating Evidence From Conjecture. By Howard E. Williams; published by Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Ltd.,; 212 pages; $59.95.

As a less-than-deadly-force option, the stun gun, known by the trademarked name Taser, polarizes opinions like few other technologies. Street cops love it; crooks who want to resist capture hate it. Plaintiff’s attorneys and civil rights groups think it is evil, while city and county attorneys who must defend officers know that less-than-lethal devices are easier to explain and justify to juries than lethal weapons.

Stun guns offer a viable alternative to police in those situations where other defensive tactics cannot subdue a violent suspect. The problem is that in some cases where the device has been used, suspects have died, leading to charges that the device can be lethal.

The reasons for these deaths vary. Many of the suspects who died struggled violently with the police, were intoxicated on drugs or alcohol, or had physical and psychiatric illnesses. Many exhibited what doctors call “excited delirium,” manifested by violent behavior, elevated body temperature, difficulty breathing, and psychosis. And in some cases, restraint methods used by officers contributed to a suspect’s death.

The question asked afterward by all sides—police, prosecutors, families, civil attorneys, review boards, the media—is the same: Was the Taser the cause of this suspect’s death?

In his book, Taser Electronic Control Devices and Sudden In-Custody Death: Separating Evidence From Conjecture, Police Chief Howard E. Williams of the San Marcos (Texas) Police Department, answers this question with a qualified “no.” In his review of 213 cases from 1983 through 2006, the Taser was deemed “a significant contributing factor” in the death of only one suspect. (For a newer case, see “Legal Report,” page 92.)

While the numbers suggest the Taser is not a lethal weapon, a lack of agreement among pathologists, coroners, forensic scientists, researchers, and attorneys fuels the controversy. However, Williams’ book is an important contribution to the pro-Taser argument and a useful review of the incidents we know.

One omission from this book is the topic of Tasers in the private security world. The number of security officers who carry the Taser device is not known.

While the book is not directed to private security use, security directors or guard company owners who are considering the Taser for their officers should read Williams’ book. Security professionals must consider the types of suspects their personnel will encounter, their potential for violence, and whether the Taser is the right tool for the job.

Reviewer: Steve Albrecht, CPP, PHR (Professional in Human Resources), is a San Diego, California-based author and security consultant on workplace violence issues. He worked in patrol and investigations for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999 and is a member of ASIS.​