Why the use of Tasers in a Mental Health Crisis is Dangerous and Deadly

Tiny - Posted on 01 October 2012


Why the use of Tasers in a Mental Health Crisis is Dangerous and Deadly: An Open Letter to the Police Commission from Mental Health Professionals and Allies.


San Francisco Police Commission,


We are writing with an urgent plea for you to vote NO on your upcoming decision regarding the use of Tasers or “directed energy weapons” by the San Francisco Police Department.


As many of you know, the population of residents in San Francisco who struggle with mental health issues and are not provided adequate care is staggering. We see this difficult truth everyday in our workplace and on the streets. Serving a community with serious mental health issues means we are confronted with situations where we have to de-escalate those in crisis in a non-violent manner, with compassion for everyone involved, on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. We understand the desire for people in our community to want better protection when entering a crisis intervention but tasers are NOT the answer. 


532 people have died from being tasered in the United States since 2001; this does not account for the numerous taser related injuries, including injuries to small children and the elderly that happen everyday. There has been very little research on the effect of tasers on the general population, let alone pregnant woman and people who have pre-existing medical conditions.


The police argue that they need tasers in order to deal more humanely with people exhibiting mental health problems; however, the San Francisco police have failed to complete their mandated Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), as outlined by the commission. The CIT, which originated in the Memphis Tennessee Police Department, has been increasingly successful in training Memphis police to use de-escalation techniques and has dramatically decreased casualties and injuries sustained by people with mental health issues. Because of the program, Memphis police refuse to carry tasers. Why have only 2% of SFPD undergone crisis intervention training? It’s outrageous that the police have not completed Crisis Intervention Training and are now asking for tasers to deal with people suffering from mental illness.


Tasering is associated with sudden death, usually via cardiac or respiratory arrest, particularly following the use of physical control measures, including police restraints. 19% of taser related deaths discussed in the briefing paper from the National Institute of Justice were of people with mental illness. Such mortality rates most commonly arise in male subjects with a history of serious mental illness and/or acute or chronic drug abuse, particularly stimulant drugs such as methamphetamines and cocaine. Considering the population of dual-diagnosis patients—those that struggle with both drug addiction and mental health issues—this fact is especially concerning. The hypothesis that tasers may contribute to an already high level of arousal of agitated individuals, and thus eventual death, needs to be researched but it should be noted that people taking prescribed antipsychotic medications are already at increased risk of sudden cardiac death (Straus et al, 2004).


Tasers may be legal from a law enforcement perspective, but as McBride & Tedder (2006) pointed out, health researchers need to investigate their mental health consequences. Use of tasers is a public policy issue that demands the vigilance of healthcare professionals and researchers. Because of the lack of research on the use of tasers in mental health crisis situations, the side effects related to taser use that include sudden death, and the fact that the SFPD has not undergone CIT training, we strongly urge you to vote NO on the implementation of tasers for use by law enforcement in the county of San Francisco.







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