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Are Electric Stun Guns Always 'Non-Lethal' Weapons?

Electric stun guns are used by law enforcement agencies across the country. People generally call the guns by their most common brand name, Taser.

Most research suggests that the 5-second pulse of electric shock the guns deliver doesn’t cause any long-term harm to a healthy person. But the company acknowledges that Tasers haven’t been scientifically tested on elderly or sick people.

Reporter Amelia Templeton takes a closer look at the recent death of Phyllis Owens, from Sandy.

Sergeant Adam Phillips runs the Taser training program for the Clackamas County Sheriffs. Phillips says that one of the main benefits of the Taser is that’s its safer than other weapons.

Phillips has voluntarily allowed himself to be shocked with a Taser three times. He says is painful. Then it’s over.

Adam Phillips: “I wouldn’t let myself get tasered if I was concerned.”

But two recent incidents in Oregon raise questions about whether the Taser could be linked to more serious health risks.

Steven Avila, a 16-year-old from Salem, was shocked with a Taser by state police in June. He spent several days in the hospital in critical condition.

Little information is available about the incident because Avila is a minor.

In July, a Clackamas County deputy fired a Taser at an 87-year-old woman, Phyllis Owens. She collapsed immediately and died in a hospital about an hour later.

Larry Lewman: “The critical thing is really the timing. And she went down, boom. And that’s how you relate this.” 

That’s deputy state medical examiner Dr. Larry Lewman. He performed an autopsy on Owens.  He says she relied completely on a pacemaker to tell her heart when to beat, and how fast. 

Lewman says the Taser wouldn’t have killed a healthy person. So he listed heart disease as the cause of Owens’s death. 

Larry Lewman: “I think it happened at this time and at this place because of the application of the stun gun, which probably interfered with the electrical device.”

Clackamas County Sheriffs classify the Taser as a non-lethal weapon. A spokesman for the sheriffs’ office says the deputy’s use of force was justified. That’s because he believed Ms. Owens was reaching for a pistol. The weapon was actually a pellet gun.

Dr. Eric Putz is the cardiologist who gave Ms. Owens her pacemaker. He has two theories about how the Taser could have interacted with her pacemaker. 

Putz says a pacemaker has a wire that acts like an antenna. The sensitive antenna monitors the electrical signal from the heart to make sure it’s beating. Outside electrical signals can trick the pacemaker’s antenna.

Eric Putz: “If it picks up the electrical signal, it believes that that electrical signal is a heartbeat and it will not pace. When you suddenly and abruptly go without a heart beat, you can have life threatening arrhythmias related to that.”

Putz has a second idea about what could have happened in Owens’ case.  The stun gun dart hit Owens in the shoulder, not far from where her pacemaker was implanted. Putz says its possible the wires allowed the electricity to travel to her heart, and cause it to beat erratically. 

Eric Putz: “That electrical energy, or that, that pathway so to speak, could include that wire that goes from the chest wall down into the heart and lead to a rhythm called ventricular fibrillation.”

Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy says he doesn’t think either of those scenarios is very likely. In a recent study partially funded by the Taser company, Lakkireddy implanted pacemakers in about a dozen pigs with healthy hearts. Then he shocked the pigs with Tasers. He says the pacemakers in the study did sometimes pick up the current as interference and stop pacing briefly.

The Taser company did not respond to numerous requests for comment. On its website, the company cites Dr. Lakkireddy’s study, and says that Tasers are safe even for people with pacemakers.

But the company also warns law enforcement officers that Tasers have not been scientifically tested for use on pregnant, infirm, elderly people, or children. And it says that use of the stun gun on those people could increase the risk of death.

Adam Phillips: “None of them are precluded at any time from our policy or in the training that Taser provides.

That’s Sergeant Phillips, with the Clackamas County Sheriffs.

Adam Phillips: “Elderly and young are included in that. They never say you cannot use it against this group under these circumstances.”

Sergeant Phillips says Owens’s death hasn’t led to any policy changes. He says any police use of force can be problematic for people with underlying health issues. But sometimes use of force is unavoidable.

Adam Phillips: “ I don’t know that there is an answer, with any of our tools, with people who have underlying health issues. Neither you or I could tell. A doctor can’t tell. So how would we expect a police officer to?”

The Clackamas County major crimes unit has been investigating Owens’ death. The district attorneys office says the investigation should conclude this week.