November 2, 2009 – An Inland coroner’s office has ruled for the first time that Taser shocks contributed to a person’s death.
Marlon Acevedo, 35, was high on PCP when he clashed with Riverside police one year ago on Halloween, according to the coroner’s report. He was in the street screaming at passing cars, and officers struck him with batons and shocked him several times, the report said. He died at a hospital less than an hour later.
PCP intoxication is listed in the Riverside County sheriff-coroner’s office report as the primary cause of death, but an enlarged heart, Taser shocks and the physical confrontation with police are cited as significant factors.
Tasers deliver an electric shock by shooting a pair of wires tipped with sharp barbs that pierce the skin and are widely used by Inland law enforcement agencies, including the Riverside County and San Bernardino County sheriff’s departments, as an alternative to lethal force.
Some critics, such as the ACLU and Amnesty International, say Tasers can lead to fatal heart problems, and that people who are mentally impaired or who are on drugs are at a higher risk of dying, especially when receiving multiple or prolonged shocks. Coroners and medical examiners elsewhere in the United States have, on occasion, determined that Tasers played a role in deaths.
Tasers have been used hundreds of time around the Inland area in recent years, and people have died after the shocks in a handful of cases. In those few deaths, coroner’s officials typically have cited drug use or serious heart problems, not the Taser, as factors.
Dr. Scott McCormick, who performed the autopsy on Acevedo, said, in that case too, the Taser was one factor among many, the most important of which was PCP intoxication. Weighing all factors, including the proximity of Taser shocks to his time of death, McCormick decided the Taser should be listed as a factor.
“Absent the use of the Taser, he most likely still would have died. I don’t think this is a reason to demonize the use of the Taser,” McCormick said.
Riverside Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Jaybee Brennan declined to comment on the case. Acevedo’s family has sued in federal court, alleging wrongful death and excessive force.
Deputy Chief Boris Robinson of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said this is the only case in which the coroner’s office has cited Taser shocks as a contributing factor. Sandy Fatland, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County coroner’s office, said her office has never cited them as a factor.
One of the Inland people dying after being shocked was a 19-year-old at a mental health facility in San Bernardino. He appeared agitated and was wearing a gas mask when police tried to restrain him last month. Two others died in Riverside County in July and August after encounters with sheriff’s deputies near Hemet and in Moreno Valley. Authorities said the men behaved as if they had mental problems or were under the influence of drugs. Details about the causes of death in all three cases have not been released.
TASER International, the company that manufactures Taser stun guns, says the vast majority of Taser deployments have resulted in minor or no injuries.
According to a recent Taser training bulletin, the company does not agree that Tasers cause heart problems.
“Arrest scenarios often involve individuals who are in crisis and are at heightened risk of serious injury or death, regardless of actions taken by law enforcement,” the bulletin says.
However, in an advisory issued in an October 12 training bulletin, Taser advised police agencies across the nation not to shoot its stun guns at a suspect’s chest.
The Arizona-based company says such action poses a risk, albeit extremely low, of an “adverse cardiac event.”
This bulletin marks the first time that Taser has suggested there is any risk of a cardiac arrest related to the use of its 50,000-volt stun guns, according to The Arizona Republic.
On October 20, 2009, Taser officials said the bulletin does not state that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest. They said the advisory means only that law-enforcement agencies can avoid controversy if their officers aim at areas other than the chest.