The weapons, long considered not to be deadly force despite infrequent deaths, are now recognized by Minneapolis police as potentially lethal.
David Smith was buried last week, the seventh person in the past seven years to have died in the metro area after being shot with a Taser.
While the investigation into the mid-September confrontation with police that led to Smith's death continues, a leading police research group and a major manufacturer of the devices are rolling out new safety measures nationally in response to the relatively small but troubling number of deaths linked to them.
And on Friday, Minneapolis police unveiled a new Taser policy that for the first time designates the device a potentially lethal weapon.
The manufacturer, Taser International, sent users a bulletin last year suggesting that they avoid shooting people near the heart.
And after lobbying by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), Taser International has agreed to offer by early next year a weapon that shocks for a maximum of five seconds with one trigger pull. Current models deliver voltage as long as the trigger is depressed.
"We think there's a time and a place for them," said Chuck Wexler, PERF's executive director. "They shouldn't be a substitute for talking through an issue with someone. And there's a limitation. There's a point at which we are convinced we have to go through another option."
Perhaps like no other device available to police, Tasers spark an extreme range of opinion.
When things go right, they put a quick end to standoffs that could have led to serious injuries to a suspect or officer. They save lives by preventing bad situations from spiraling out of control, and they save public money by preventing officer injuries, Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. Bill Palmer said. "They're an effective tool," he said.
Yet in the rare cases when someone dies, the victim's family often wonders what role the device played.
Waiting for autopsy
A police search warrant seeking Smith's medical records includes a more thorough account of what happened when Smith was shot with a Taser at the downtown YMCA on Sept. 9. The police account says two officers were called to the Y at 30 S. 9th St. about 4 p.m. They had responded to a complaint that Smith had harassed a 13-year-old boy, the warrant says.
The officers noticed that he appeared unwell. They suspected he was either under the influence of something or having a mental health issue. Smith did not speak to the officers or even acknowledge their presence, the officers reported. When they tried to take him into custody, he fought, the warrant said.
He punched one officer in the face; the other officer's back was injured in the scuffle. The officers shot Smith with a Taser and handcuffed him, according to the warrant. Smith then lost consciousness. The officers called for an ambulance and began CPR. Smith, 28, died Sept. 17.
Smith's family said it wasn't like him to harass a 13-year-old. "That's not David's personality," said Larry Smith, an uncle. David had struggled with mental illness, according to his uncle, and after learning from the search warrant that police initially suspected David might be having a mental issue, Larry wondered if a different approach could have been taken.
"Let's call out a crisis team or counselors who could deal with it," he said.
On Friday, the Minneapolis Police Department unveiled a new Taser policy that characterizes the device as "less lethal," a change from "nonlethal." The change had been in the works for some time as the department sought to bring its policy in closer alignment with PERF guidelines.
The new policy also advises officers to use the stun gun for one five-second cycle and then reassess whether more stuns are needed, saying "... exposure to multiple applications of the [Taser] for longer than 15 seconds may increase the risk of serious injury or death."
Someone actively resisting arrest or exhibiting active aggression becomes a fair target for an officer's Taser, Palmer said. It can also be used to save lives -- to prevent people from killing themselves, for example. The new policy also tells officers to call out that they're about to use a Taser before firing one, the threat sometimes being enough to make people compliant.
"We want the least amount of force that can be used to be used," Palmer said.
Some 250 of the department's 850 officers carry stun guns, said Palmer. They were first introduced there in 2001.
Palmer was a patrol officer in 2000 when he and his partner shot and killed a mentally ill woman in her Uptown apartment after she stepped toward them with a knife. The incident led the department to equip officers with Tasers and to give officers additional training in handling mentally ill people, Palmer said.
Minneapolis police used stun guns 399 times in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics were available. In 59 of those cases the officer performed a "drive stun," meaning they held the device against someone's body; in the rest of the cases, the officer either shot the device's wired darts at the person or used darts and a drive stun together.
A 2008 study by the federal government's National Institute of Justice found that stun guns can inflict serious and "potentially lethal" injury, though the study said such cases were rare.
The study examined two years' worth of records from six police departments, covering 962 uses of a Taser. In 99.7 percent of the cases, people were either not hurt or had only minor injuries, mostly skin punctures from the Taser's darts. Three people were seriously hurt: one had bruising on the brain, another had an epidural hematoma (blood between the skull and brain), and a third developed a condition in which muscle tissue was destroyed; the condition, rhabdomyolysis, has been linked to electrical injury, among other causes.
None of the three died, but the injuries in two cases were indirectly tied to being shot with a stun gun. The data in the third case were uncertain, according to the researchers.
Mark Anderson, head of the Barbara Schneider Foundation, a nonprofit group that works with police and others on mental health issues, said stun guns, used properly, can be a good way for police to end conflicts with the mentally ill.
"As an alternative to deadly force, it's wonderful," he said. "My concern is that if the Taser is used too early when in particular verbal deescalation can be used, that's really a problem."
Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747