Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Wake Forests' highly suspect taser injury study; Foxes Guarding the Henhouse.

taser in the henhouseThe Winston-Salem Journal reported on 10/8 of this year that a study led by researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine suggests that Tasers are safe. The study, funded by the National Institute of Justice, is said to be the first large, independent study to measure the risk of Taser injuries in real-world situations. Doctors at six jurisdictions across the country reviewed medical and police reports of everyone police used a Taser on, noting injuries ranging from mild (cuts and bruises) to serious, such as bruising to the brain caused by a fall after a man was shocked. These were, of course, police reports and initial contact medical reports without follow-up patient examinations. This is not science. This is propaganda. This is sales.

Study director Dr. William Bozeman, associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, commented that despite the conclusions of the study “You cannot treat it as a magical thing that can’t hurt. You have to understand that it is a weapon. It’s very important to recognize that these devices are not 100 percent safe.” This disclaimer aside, Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International, said he was “thrilled” with the results. Of course he was.

Raj Jayadev of Indybay offered a less enthusiastic view on 10/18, pointing out that examination of the study leaves more questions than answers. Nationally recognized Taser expert Aram James of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability (CJA) says, “The study concludes, without supporting data, that Tasers reduce injuries to both police and the individuals tasered. But the authors offer no systematic data to support this conclusion.” The abstract reported 23% of 597 subjects received some sort of injury. “...hardly support for the proposition that Tasers are safe -- and when coupled with 293 taser related deaths, a statistic conveniently ignored by the authors, the conclusion that Tasers are safe is not only not true but in fact a lie of deadly proportions.”

Richard Konda, Executive Director of the Asian Law Alliance and CJA co-founder, says the study ignores the reality that some populations are at higher risk when Tased. “The study fails to mention the effect of Tasers on vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women, the elderly, the mentally ill, and those under the influence of drugs, who are far more likely to suffer serious injuries and even death as a result of being Tasered... medical remedies to prevent death are being developed because Tasers kill. In Miami emergency medical technicians are spraying a sedative in the noses of Tasers victims or inject them with iced saline solutions. These protocols lead us to only one conclusion – that Tasers are deadly weapons and must be banned.”

The study was essentially a law enforcement report, and James points to several red flags. “First, it was conducted at six law enforcement agencies across the country, interestingly enough not disclosed. Why the secrecy? Secondly, underlying police reports and any accompanying medical records were reviewed by ‘tactical physicians' closely connected to a law enforcement agenda. Finally, not mentioned anywhere in the press release is the companion piece put out by the Wake Forest Physicians Group. In a study dated September 4, 2007, the same doctors credited with the above study reported on a police officer who, after volunteering to receive a 5 second Taser exposure under very controlled circumstances... suffered a very serious and apparently permanently debilitating thoracic compression fracture. Why was this piece buried? So much for Tasers being a low risk of injury weapon. If they're unsafe for the cops they're unsafe for us.”

Academics don't work for free. To evaluate any university study, follow the money. The funding agency, the National Institute of Justice, is an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. Their website lists grant awards, though the most recent data available is for 2006. These are a few of them:

Wake Forest University Health Sciences received a grant of more than $149,000 in the category of Less-Lethal Incapacitation to study injuries produced by Law Enforcement's use of less-lethal weapons.

The Police Executive Research Forum received more than $400,000 to evaluate the effects of less-lethal technologies on police use-of-force outcomes. PERF is a national membership organization of police executives from the largest city, county and state law enforcement agencies.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police was awarded more than $250,000 for a study of Electronic Control Weapons and Deaths in Custody.

Blackhawk Industries Products Group, a large manufacturer of tactical law enforcement gear, received $174,000.

Politics and grant monies make strange bedfellows. Given the company of the members of this list, is there any reason whatever to suspect that the Wake Forest study is independent of the influence of police agencies and weapons manufacturers? This looks to me less like rigorous peer-reviewed research than whoring science out to support foregone conclusions in the service of sales, marketing, and the casual use of excessive force.