I-Team: Did Taser maker do proper study?

CINCINNATI - The 9 News I-Team continues to investigate the potential lethality of the weapon sold to law enforcement agencies across the Tri-State and around the globe as a non-lethal force option.

The original Taser was invented in 1969, but it was 30 years later Taser International introduced new Taser technology to provide "a quantum leap" in stopping power.

Since the widespread use of that Taser in 2001, at least 500 people have died following Taser stuns according to Amnesty International.

Only around 60 of those cases were definitively linked to the Taser by medical examiners.

In July 2011, a jury awarded the family of a 17-year-old $10 million, saying a Taser stun killed him, however the manufacturer failed to properly warn police the Taser could affect the heart.

In March 2012, a judge lowered the award to $5 million, but upheld the verdict.

Attorney John Burton tried the case.

"This is a device that...the power of which was boosted by four times when the Smith brothers acquired it and then sold directly by Taser International to police departments with no intervening government vetting and no peer reviewed medical testing or studies published, simply a product to make money for this company," said Burton.

Electrophysiologist Dr. Douglas Zipes testified in the trial on behalf of the victim's family, and this month his research that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest and death was published in the American Heart Association's premier journal.

"I think Taser's testing of the safety of their devices is woefully inadequate, both in animals and in humans," said Dr. Zipes.

A review of the Taser by the Department of Defense in 2002 said "Development of the Taser appears to be based on serendipitous findings and trial and error, as opposed to well-defined scientific investigation."

The reviewers gave "a limited but favorable endorsement" for military use.

Three years later in 2005, a suit filed by Taser International's own shareholders, accused the company of spending only $14,000 on safety research in 1999 and 2000 prior to putting the higher powered Taser on the market.

Taser settled the shareholder suit for $21 million.

Taser CEO Rick Smith says it's not true that the company spent only $14,000 in initial safety research, because he says Taser's original medical researcher, Dr. Robert Stratbucker, worked for the company for years.

However when asked by the I-Team whether he compensated Dr. Stratbucker with stock instead of pay, Smith said that was true.

"You know when you're a small company and you don't have cash you gotta pay people with whatever you got," said Smith.

Now a multi-million dollar company, Smith says the Taser over the years has been more studied than any other non-lethal weapon, many of the studies funded by his company.

But a September article in the American Heart Journal reported that "studies funded by Taser and/or written by an author affiliated with the company are substantially more likely to conclude that Tasers are safe...18 times higher odds."

9 News contacted Taser International earlier this week asking for any peer-reviewed and published safety research done on the higher powered Taser prior to its market launch, and the company has not responded.

Taser has pointed to a study released in May 2011 by the Department of Justice on deaths following Taser stuns. That report states "there is currently no medical evidence that CED's (Tasers) pose a significant risk for induced cardiac dysrhythmia in humans when deployed reasonably."

Nowhere in the report is the word "reasonably" defined.

The Cincinnati Police Department announced last week it is now revising its policy on the deployment of Tasers, specifically looking at the placement of the darts, following the published research of Dr. Zipes.

Research shows the Taser has saved lives and reduced injuries to officers and subjects, but the death of 18-year-old Everette Howard of North College Hill after a Taser was used on him in August 2011 on the University of Cincinnati campus has raised concerns of public safety, as well as liability for officers and taxpayers.

The Hamilton County Coroner's office still hasn't ruled on Howard's cause of death.

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