Five seconds and 50,000 volts – that’s enough of a jolt to hijack your nervous system and contract every muscle in your body. Applying electricity in this way has become the tool of choice for police officers across the country. We’re talking about conducted electrical weapons, better-known as tasers. They’ve rapidly moved from an obscure police technology, into the public consciousness. They’ve been hailed by law enforcement as a life-saving tool. But some critics say that’s far from the case.
Eric Dexheimer, an investigative reporter at the Austin American-Statesman says tasers are linked to severe injury and death for people in police custody.
Dexheimer reported these findings as part of an investigative series for the Austin American-Statesman on police in-custody deaths, and the the low level of repercussions for these incidents, across the state.
The investigation found that in Texas, 290 people have died while in police custody since 2005. Of that number, between 87 and 90 were tased.
“In eight or nine cases, medical examiners said that a taser was directly responsible for someone’s death,” Dexheimer says. “[This] is very uncommon. Most medical examiners are reluctant to do that.”
Dexheimer says that in a few other cases, a person in police custody fell after being tased, sustaining fatal injuries as a result.
“We actually found one case in which a guy caught fire.” he says.
Dexheimer says that in incidents where a medical examiners ruled that a taser was responsible for the death, the cause was listed as ‘cardiac capture,’ which is essentially a heart attack.
Confrontations where tasers are used tend to be chaotic, with police officers not always aware of where their taser is pointed. Dexheimer says that the company that produces taser weapons recommends that police not point a taser directly at a suspect’s chest, specifically to avoid cardiac capture risk.
“We found a number of instances where, in the heat of the moment, or whether they weren’t trained, or for whatever reason, the police did not heed that advice,” Dexheimer says.
The most recent story in the Statesman series focuses on the case of Willie Ray Banks. Police in Granite Shoals, near Austin, were called to Banks’ home by neighbors who said he was acting ‘crazy.’ Dexheimer says Banks had previous contact with the police, including arrests on drug charges and evading arrest.
When police arrived at Banks’ home, officers gave him a choice – go to the hospital, or go to jail. When Banks did not choose, an officer informed Banks that he would be taken to jail on public intoxication charges.
Dexheimer says Banks resisted, and a physical altercation began between Banks and two officers.
“They tased him, I think five times,” Dexheimer says. “They got Willie on the ground. He weighed about 165 pounds. The officer weighed 260. The deputy, who was a woman weighed about 135. The paramedic weighed about 250 pounds.”
Next, officers used a method called ‘drive stun’ where a taser is placed directly on the subject’s body, Dexheimer says. Tasing continued for 3.5 minutes. Dexheimer says the Texas Ranger investigating the incident found the duration of the tasing extraordinary.
Banks was placed in a police car, and driven to jail. Officers did not check on Banks during the trip. When they arrived, Dexheimer says, Banks was “effectively dead.”
The Banks case was not initially presented to a grand jury. Dexheimer and the Statesman shared their findings to the new district attorney, who has presented the case to a grand jury.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.