Reuters finds more than 150 autopsy reports citing Tasers as a cause or contributor to US deaths. Many who die are among society’s vulnerable.
ONTARIO, California – As her husband stalked around the back yard, upending chairs and screaming about demons, Nancy Schrock knew he was unraveling fast. She dialed the police.
“He needs to be in the hospital,” she told a 911 dispatcher. It was 10:24 p.m. on a Thursday in June 2012. “He’s really, really, really bad.”
Tom Schrock had struggled with depression and occasional drug problems throughout their 35-year marriage, and his manic episodes had grown more fierce since their oldest child died three years earlier of a heroin overdose. Police had visited the family’s ranch-style house east of Los Angeles more than a dozen times. Typically, Tom was taken to the hospital, medicated and sent home after 72 hours.
Not this time.
Three officers answered the call, categorized by the dispatcher as a disturbance involving an unarmed man with mental health issues. Nancy took them through the house to the back; Santiago Mota, a veteran cop, drew his Taser. As officers came out the back door, Tom strode toward them, arms at his side, hands closed. They ordered him to stop, but he kept coming, muttering, “Get out.”
Mota fired the Taser.
Tom buckled, then retreated into the yard. Mota followed, pressed the electric stun gun to Tom’s chest and fired again. The 57-year-old collapsed, gasping, unresponsive. He never regained consciousness.
“I called for help,” Nancy said. “I didn’t call for them to come and kill him.”
The San Bernardino County Coroner labeled the cause of Schrock’s death “multifactorial,” ruling Tom died from a lack of oxygen to the brain due to cardiac arrest following “law enforcement intervention.” First among the “contributing causes:” use of a Taser.
The Schrocks sued Ontario police and the weapon’s manufacturer, Taser International Inc. They contended the stun guns were inherently dangerous, and accused the department of failing to properly train officers on the risks of using the weapons on people with mental health problems. The city settled for $500,000. The case against Taser was dismissed in June; both sides declined to say whether there was a settlement.
As thousands of police forces across America have embraced Tasers, the outlines of the Schrock case have grown familiar: a Taser shot, an unintended death, a damage claim. But the episode’s nuances – a mentally ill victim, a complex death investigation, a debate over the weapon’s use – tell a deeper story.
Tom Schrock’s death is one tragedy in a larger constellation of fatalities involving Tasers explored by Reuters in a first-of-its-kind examination of deaths and lawsuits involving the stun guns.
Reuters documented 1,005 incidents in the United States in which people died after police stunned them with Tasers, nearly all since the early 2000s – the most thorough accounting to date of fatal encounters involving the paralyzing stun guns.
Many of the casualties are among society's vulnerable. A quarter of the people who died, like Schrock, were suffering from a mental health breakdown or neurological disorder. In nine of every 10 incidents, the deceased was unarmed. More than 100 of the fatal encounters began with a 911 call for help during a medical emergency.
It’s impossible to know precisely what role the Taser played in many of the deaths documented by Reuters. A review of more than 400 of the fatal encounters – those in which court documents provide a relatively detailed account of what happened – indicates Tasers were the only form of force allegedly used by police in about one in four of the cases. The rest involved both Tasers and other forms of force.
Most independent researchers who’ve studied the weapons agree deaths are rare when Tasers are used properly. But the probability of dying from a Taser shock in a police encounter may be incalculable, researchers say, citing a lack of official data on stun-gun use, the fact that deaths often have more than one cause, and other complexities.
No government agency tracks fatalities in police incidents where Tasers are used. Autopsies are not public in some states. And coroners and medical examiners use varying standards to assess a Taser’s role in a death. The language of their rulings ranges from detailed and rigorous to thin and opaque.
Against that curtain of uncertainty, Taser International has insisted for years that its weapons are almost never to blame when someone dies after being stunned. Almost always, the company says, those deaths result from drug use, underlying physiological conditions such as heart problems, or other police force used along with the Taser.
The company asserts that only 24 people have ever died from Tasers – 18 from fatal head or neck injuries in falls caused by a Taser strike, and six from fires sparked by the weapon’s electrical arc. Not a single person, the manufacturer says, has died from the direct effects of the Taser’s powerful shock to the heart or body.
Official records suggest otherwise.
Reuters obtained autopsy findings for 712 of the 1,005 deaths it documented. In 153 of those cases, or more than a fifth, the Taser was cited as a cause or contributing factor in the death, typically as one of several elements triggering the fatality. Most of the other autopsies cited a combination of heart and medical conditions, drug use and various forms of trauma.
The deaths pose a challenge for U.S. law enforcement at a time when protests over police killings have spurred cities to seek safer ways to control combative subjects. The Taser – a weapon nearly universally embraced since the early 2000s as an alternative to firearms – is widely seen as crucial to safer policing. About 90 percent of America’s roughly 18,000 police agencies now issue Tasers.
Tasers fire two darts connected to the stun gun by thin wires. When the darts hit a target, a pulsed current triggers a paralyzing neuromuscular response that gives police several seconds to restrain the subject. The gun can also be pressed directly against the body – the “drive stun” mode – causing intense pain, but without the darts’ paralyzing effects.
Many officers have taken a Taser shock in training, and they attest to its agonizing power.
“The Taser caused my whole body to lock up, and the pain would compare to a whole-body charley horse,” Salt Lake County Deputy Sheriff Tiana Broos once testified. “I felt like I was going to suffocate.”
Independent studies have found that when used properly, Tasers lower the rate of injury incurred by both police and the people they confront. The company estimates its weapons have been deployed more than 3 million times in the field. Taser keeps its own log of deadly incidents involving its signature stun guns, which it declined to share.
The 1,005 deaths identified by Reuters total 44 percent more than the 700 reported by Amnesty International at the end of 2016, despite the news agency’s use of stricter criteria in determining which incidents to count.
Taser says these tallies give an exaggerated picture of the weapons’ hazards because they suggest Tasers caused all those deaths, when most involved other types of police force as well. The devices have saved tens of thousands of lives, the company says. All weapons carry risks, said Steve Tuttle, the company’s vice president for communications, but Tasers are “the safest force option available to law enforcement.”
Tuttle also said the autopsy results collected by Reuters are unreliable because they were not “peer reviewed” – a standard for studies published in medical journals, although not applicable in courts of law. The medical examiners and pathologists around the country who decided the official cause of death in those cases may not understand the weapons’ physiological effects, he said, and may be “over-listing” potential factors in their rulings to avoid being criticized for possible omissions.
“Ultimately, Taser is not responsible for educating every medical examiner on the subtleties of electrocution,” Tuttle said.
After Reuters explained its findings to Taser, the company sent an alert to law enforcement groups summarizing some of the central points of this series, describing them as “not new” and promising to provide “key resources” to repudiate the reports.
Taser International, which acquired the stun-gun technology in the 1990s, changed its name in April to Axon Enterprise Inc. The new name, the company said, reflects its expanding business mission, including police body cameras and software used to manage evidence.
MENTAL HEALTH AND TASERS
Taser won immense popularity for its devices through a singular marketing focus: Instead of resorting to lethal gunfire or potentially dangerous physical confrontations, it told police departments, they could control combative subjects with a paralyzing stun.
Yet as the cases explored by Reuters reveal, stun-gun encounters can turn deadly. Often, those killed include people struggling with mental illness, emotional breakdowns or seizure disorders.
Encounters with such people have become more frequent as cuts in government-funded mental health services have thrust police into the role of first responders for those in psychological crisis. One in every 100 police calls involves a person with a mental health disorder, according to research by the American Psychiatric Association. Too often, experts say, officers see Tasers as a go-to weapon in those circumstances.
“Cops have been turned into mental health workers on the street,” said Ken Wallentine, former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General, who advises police departments on use of force. “I fear that some police training and some police practices have allowed the crowding out of persuasion,” he said, “and the Taser has become the default tool.”
Under law, it is up to police departments, not the manufacturer, to mandate when cops should deploy stun guns; a handful of states, such as Connecticut, have codified general rules of use. Some federal courts have held that Tasers should only be used on actively aggressive subjects, a view being adopted by a growing number of departments. And the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank, advises against using Tasers on “persons in medical/mental crisis.” But police policies vary widely.
Taser itself has sent mixed messages about using its weapons on the mentally ill, Reuters found in an examination of legal filings and of hundreds of pages of warnings and training materials issued by the company over the past 15 years.
When Tasers began gaining popularity with police in the early 2000s, the company touted the weapons as an effective and relatively safe way to control people suffering a mental health crisis or intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.
“We did see those as potential uses of the device,” Taser President Rick Smith said in a 2007 deposition.
In materials provided to police trainers in 2004, Taser said its stun gun was “becoming widely accepted as the premier tool” for police units that deal with “emotionally disturbed persons.”
In recent years, the company has been more cautionary. Taser issued revised training materials in 2013 that advised police to avoid shocking someone “who is actually or perceived to be mentally ill.”
But that guidance, offered on the 66th slide in a 231-slide “User Course” presentation, was characterized as a liability consideration – not a safety issue. The company’s official warnings to law enforcement make no mention of people with mental illness. Instead, they caution against using Tasers on people who exhibit “extreme agitation” and “bizarre behavior.”
For police on the street, figuring out who meets those criteria can be daunting, officers and police lawyers say.
Assessing someone’s mental state on the fly is “one of the most difficult things an officer has to do,” said Eric Carlson, a training and counseling officer at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Santiago Mota, the Ontario, California, police officer who fired the Taser against Schrock, said in a deposition he was unaware Schrock was mentally ill upon arriving at the family’s home. The police dispatcher had listed the call as a “5150 hold,” code for a forced detention for mental evaluation. Mota said he missed the alert.
“By the time I'm arriving, I don't – I don't hear ‘5150,’ ” Mota said. After being stunned, Schrock went into ventricular fibrillation, a condition marked by a wildly erratic heartbeat. He died seven days later. The coroner found he had an array of heart problems, some likely exacerbated by a period of methamphetamine use two decades earlier, when he was caught making the drug and sentenced to probation.
Schrock, a hospital technician for much of his working life, was a gentle father who frequently took his children on camping trips and hikes when they were younger, Nancy said. “I mean, that was the love of my life, the father of my kids, and my life will never be the same again,” she said.
The Ontario Police Department declined to discuss the case or make Mota available for an interview.
Taser spokesman Tuttle acknowledged concerns about using the company’s weapons on the mentally ill. “Yeah, there are at-risk groups, and that is why we identify them,” Tuttle told Reuters. The use of Tasers on people in mental health crises “certainly is a topic that’s out there.”
Still, Tuttle said, the company’s warnings do not prohibit Taser use on people in mental distress. “It doesn’t say, ‘You shall not use this on someone that may be emotionally disturbed.’ ”
Taser’s warnings are “guidelines,” Tuttle said, and it is up to police departments and their officers to decide when to use the weapons. Courts have largely endorsed that position, finding that police are responsible for policies on Taser use.
Little research exists on Taser use against people in mental health crises and other vulnerable individuals. That’s in part because of ethical constraints on scientists, said Jena Neuscheler, co-author of a Taser study by the Stanford University Criminal Justice Center.
“We don’t know how it impacts people who have a mental illness, who are under the influence of drugs, who have a heart defect, who might be pregnant,” she said. “We can’t test it on those populations.”
The Stanford study found that Tasers shouldn’t be used on significant swaths of the population. The center analyzed about 150 studies and concluded Tasers are safe “for use on healthy individuals who are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are not pregnant, and do not suffer from mental illness – so long as the individual receives only a standard five-second shock to an approved area of the body.”
‘DON’T TASE HIM!’
MacAdam Lee Mason looked dazed as he stumbled outside the Vermont home he shared with Theresa Davidonis and her children – the sort of behavior they recognized as typical when he was recovering from a seizure.
The state police surrounding the couple’s house that June afternoon in 2012 saw things differently.
Mason was 39, an artist who had struggled with seizures and mental illness since a brain injury in a high-school car accident. Troopers had visited the house earlier that afternoon after he had called a counseling center to report he’d had a seizure and was angry enough to kill himself – or someone else. Davidonis sent them away, explaining that Mason often was irrational and incoherent after seizures. He posed no threat and had no weapons, she added.
Now the police had returned for a follow-up check. Davidonis was gone and no one answered the door. As troopers took positions around the property, suspecting Mason was hiding in the surrounding woods, Davidonis pulled up, returning from an errand.
Trooper David Shaffer set up behind a tree to the side of the house with an M-4 assault rifle. He spotted Mason crossing the yard, looking like he was in a “haze,” Shaffer later told investigators.
Shaffer approached Mason, gun at “low ready” position, and ordered him to the ground.
Mason held up his hands and sat on the grass. But as Shaffer yelled at him to lie face-down, Mason stood again. “Shoot me,” Mason said. Shaffer later said Mason seemed angry and moved toward him as if preparing to throw a punch – a description Davidonis disputes. As she watched, Shaffer switched from the rifle to his Taser.
“I was screaming, ‘Don’t Taser him! He just had a seizure, you’ll kill him!’ ” Davidonis said. “But the cop just fired and the barbs hit him in the chest and he kind of crumbled, like slow motion.”
Mason went into cardiac arrest and died. The medical examiner attributed the cause of death to the Taser: “sudden cardiac death due to conducted electrical weapon discharge,” using a generic term for stun gun.
Mason’s mother, Rhonda Taylor, carries his ashes with her in a small wooden box he painted with a landscape scene. “You know, when a police officer kills someone like this, someone who’s mentally ill, it kills their mother, too,” she said.
After Mason’s death, Taylor helped the American Civil Liberties Union lobby state legislators for restrictions on Taser use. In 2014, Vermont passed a law limiting the circumstances under which police can deploy Tasers and setting training standards for officers who carry them. The law, following similar legislation in Connecticut, lays out parameters for using Tasers on people struggling with mental illness or emotional crises. For instance, Tasers should only be fired at people showing “active aggression.”
“They can’t just use a Taser on people because they don’t want to take the time to talk with them,” Taylor said, sobbing. “Nobody should have to lose a child like this.”
The Vermont State Police declined to comment or to make Shaffer available for an interview, citing ongoing litigation with the family. Prosecutors concluded the trooper acted lawfully.
The challenges of interacting with people in mental crises have prompted many police departments to adopt “crisis intervention training,” or CIT. Pioneered in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1988, the training emphasizes de-escalation strategies in lieu of using a Taser or other kinds of force.
A decade ago, an estimated 400 police departments provided CIT programs, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Today, the American Psychiatric Association puts the number closer to 3,000.
Still, that comprises a fraction of the estimated 18,000 local, state and federal police agencies in the United States. In 2016, the International Association of Chiefs of Police urged all police forces to set a goal of having at least 20 percent of their officers undergo CIT training.
The Phoenix Police Department began CIT instruction in 2000 and has put more than 500 officers through the training. Since 2015, all officers also must take an eight-hour course on managing people with mental illness. The department’s Taser use has dropped sharply, from 330 deployments a year in 2006 to 158 in 2016.
There’s no way to know for sure how much of the decline stems from the training, said Sergeant Vince Lewis, who teaches Taser and use-of-force classes. But Tasers are now seen more as a last resort in Phoenix, he said. “The best tools in our toolbox when we’re dealing with somebody suffering from mental illness are time and talk.”
‘SOMEONE’S TRYING TO KILL US’
People in a mental crisis often are confused and frightened when police confront them. Tensions can escalate rapidly, especially if officers are not properly trained, said Denise Juliano-Bult, who helps coordinate research on services for the mentally ill at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health.
“That can lead to unfortunate incidents where the people with mental illness can get injured and the police can get injured,” she said.
On an April evening in 2015, Lucky Phounsy, 32, called 911 from the home of his mother and stepfather in San Diego, California. Phounsy had become delusional after four days without sleep – a result, the family suspects, of drugs taken at a music festival days earlier.
Phounsy was at the house with his wife, Loan Thi Minh Nguyen, to celebrate their son’s second birthday. As the evening progressed, Phounsy’s stepfather, Greg Kelley, and Loan decided to drive him to the emergency room to be sedated.
At 10:13 p.m. Phounsy called 911. “I have an emergency here,” Phounsy said. “Someone’s trying to kill us.”
Kelley took the phone. “The person that called you is getting very, very paranoid. We are trying to get him to the hospital.” He told the dispatcher there were no weapons in the house.
In an interview, Loan and Kelley said Phounsy was “tremendously relieved” when San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies arrived. Officers introduced themselves and immediately asked Phounsy to turn around and raise his hands, the family said.
He started to comply but then asked them why. One officer cursed; another told him to place his hands behind his back and placed one hand in a handcuff. “Wait a minute. I’m the one who called you. Why are you asking me to put my hands up?” Phounsy asked, according to Kelley’s deposition. At that, the second officer shot him with a Taser.
“There was no effort to talk to him,” Kelley said. “It was shocking.”
Stunned a second time, the family says, Phounsy became combative. He fought with the male officer, fracturing the lawman’s nose. More officers arrived, and Phounsy was hit with batons, hogtied and put into an ambulance, the family says.
On the way to the hospital his heart stopped. He later was pronounced brain dead and died after the family removed him from life support. The outcome could have been different, Loan said, “if there was a dialogue. There was no dialogue.”
The police said Phounsy turned violent before the Taser was used and officers had to stun him several times to subdue him. The deputy who stunned Phounsy had received psychiatric emergency response training, a program similar to CIT that emphasizes de-escalating mental health emergencies.
A report issued by San Diego County said Phounsy’s body contained trace amounts of cannabis and ecstasy, but no other illegal drugs. Nevertheless, Deputy Medical Examiner Steven Campman ruled the death an “accident” – a heart attack after physical altercation and restraint, due to a “stimulant drug-related psychotic state.” Campman’s office declined to comment.
Phounsy’s family sued San Diego County and other first responders, citing excessive Taser use, among other factors. The defendants deny responsibility; the case remains open.
‘DON’T BE SCARED’
Like scores of other fatal police encounters involving Tasers, Lucky Phounsy's death began with a call for help. Nearly half of those 911 calls came from a family member, including more than two dozen from mothers or fathers, at least 10 from spouses or partners, and five from sisters or brothers, court records show.
On the evening of Dec. 16, 2014, James Williams told his wife, Asasa, he felt a cold coming on. To help him sleep, he mixed over-the-counter flu medicine with a “hot toddy” – a shot of rum and tea. “I’m going to knock this out,” he said.
Around 4 a.m., he startled Asasa awake. His stomach hurt and he was cold. Asasa checked the thermostat in their four-bedroom home in Douglasville, Georgia: 80 degrees.
Williams pulled the sheets tight over him and went into an epileptic seizure.
A singer-songwriter and father of three boys, Williams, 43, had experienced a seizure before. Two months earlier, while at work delivering electrical supplies, he crashed into a telephone pole after going into convulsions. Emerging from his truck, Williams became confused and combative, running into traffic. Six or seven officers subdued him. Later in the hospital, he remembered nothing.
This time, Asasa recalled the doctor’s instructions: Lay him on his side. Then she dialed 911.
“My husband, I believe, he had a seizure,” she told the dispatcher. “I need some help.”
After she hung up, Williams paced and made a high-pitched groan she had never heard in 14 years of marriage – “kahhhh, kahhhhh.”
“You just had a seizure … don’t be scared,” she told him. He wrestled away, nearly knocking over a television. He banged his head on a toilet seat and pulled off his shirt. Asasa shouted for her son, Bashir, 18, to call 911 again. “Tell them to hurry!”
The dispatcher asked if Williams was violent. “No,” Bashir said, “just making a weird noise, acting weird.”
Mike Shuler, a paramedic for 30 years, arrived about 4:39 a.m. with colleague Mark Wardlaw. Bashir waved them into the house. Asasa had just pulled her two younger sons, 6 and 13, from the upstairs bedroom Williams had entered.
Shuler said he saw Williams hurl himself head-first over a child’s bed, smashing the wall and cutting his forehead. Bashir said the two men tackled his father.
When Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Kenny Turner arrived at 4:41 a.m., Shuler was in the room alone with Williams, who had broken free, according to law-enforcement records and the family’s lawsuit.
“He’s having a seizure,” Asasa told Turner, according to audio recorded by the deputy’s uniform microphone. Turner later told investigators he was unaware Williams was having a seizure and readied his Taser because Williams was combative.
Turner shouted “stop” and “relax.” He tried to wrestle Williams into handcuffs, pushing him onto the bed. But Williams got back up. “You are going to get Tased,” Turner said. “Stop acting wild.”
He fired the Taser darts at Williams, knocking him to the bed. Williams stood again.
“Stop moving!” Turner shouted, pulling the trigger to deliver another five-second shock, state investigative records show. Williams, tangled in the electrified wires, fell again, his head hitting the floor.
“Help,” Williams said. “Help, help.”
As Williams rose, his head struck a bed railing, Turner said. Turner pulled the trigger again, knocking Williams down long enough to handcuff him. Shuler bound his legs and another paramedic administered two doses of midazolam, a sedative.
Williams lost consciousness and died that evening.
The coroner ruled the death “natural,” caused by “cerebellar intracerebral hemorrhage.”
Last August, Williams’ family sued the Douglas County fire and police departments, along with Taser International. The family dropped the case against Taser after the company provided documents showing it had warned against using its weapons on people prone to seizures, said family lawyer Jeff Gewirtz.
Taser also questioned whether both the weapon’s electrified barbs made contact, noting the coroner found evidence of just one, and argued it was "highly unlikely" the stun gun delivered any charge that contributed to the death. But Turner told investigators the Taser jolts knocked Williams down. “Somehow it worked,” he said. Taser itself has said its weapons can deliver a paralyzing charge even if both darts don't touch skin.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office use of force policy prohibits police from using Tasers on people with “known neuromuscular disorders such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or epilepsy.”
District Attorney Brian Fortner found no evidence of criminal conduct by the officers. “Mr. Williams died of natural causes,” he wrote. The department did not respond to an interview request.
Deputy Turner’s personnel records show that, in the decade prior, he took 153 training courses covering 1,202 hours. Of those courses, one was dedicated to dealing with the mentally ill. It lasted one hour. He didn’t receive CIT instruction.
Turner did log 13 hours of Taser training over a decade. Asked in sworn testimony if he could recall any warnings in the training to avoid shocking a person afflicted with epilepsy or a seizure disorder, he paused.
“I don’t remember any of that.”
REUTERS - Additional reporting by Lisa Girion and Paula Seligson