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Editorial: Training can help prevent Taser deaths

Taser gun training expert Ken Augsbach of the

Taser gun training expert Ken Augsbach of the Suffolk County Police Department demonstrates the use of the Taser gun. (Oct. 15, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Police on Long Island are embracing Tasers as an effective alternative to lethal force in subduing violent suspects, a practice that also reduces the risk of cops being hurt. In most instances the devices perform as billed, justifying their growing use.

Nationwide more than 99 in 100 people shocked by the devices wielded by police suffered little or no injury, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice study. Still, Tasers can be deadly.

Seven people have died in Suffolk over the past nine years after being shocked with the "conducted energy devices," which produce 50,000 volts of electricity that cause temporarily disabling involuntary muscle contractions. They also can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Nationally since 2001, at least 552 people have died after being shocked, according to Amnesty International USA, a human rights organization.

So while the devices are a valuable law-enforcement tool, police departments should be required to report instances of serious injury or death connected to their use to state officials for careful study. The objective should be to determine what, if anything, could be done to avoid such undesirable outcomes, particularly for suspects with psychiatric or substance abuse problems who seem most at risk.

What's learned should be used to improve police training in the use of the devices. State officials should ensure that departments don't use them excessively or cavalierly -- for instance, repeatedly or continuously shocking individual suspects, a practice often associated with stun-gun deaths.

The Suffolk County Police Department has 1,164 Tasers, enough to equip about half the force. The Nassau County Police Department has only a dozen, but plans to buy 200 more for patrol supervisors. As the deployment of Tasers increases, so should our knowledge about how to use them safely.