Teen's death raises new concern about Taser safety

Israel Hernandez-Llach poses in this undated photo courtesy of Heather Bozzone. Miami Beach police are investigating the death of the 18-year-old graf...
Israel Hernandez-Llach poses in this undated photo courtesy of Heather Bozzone. Heather Bozzone

The death of an 18-year-old graffiti artist who was shot in the chest with a Taser has reignited a debate about the device’s safety.

A wake will be held Tuesday evening followed by a funeral Wednesday for Israel Hernandez-Llach, who died Aug. 9 one hour after a Miami Beach police officer shot him in the chest with a Taser, causing the teen to fall face down on the ground.

Tasers, produced by Arizona-based Taser International, use a gas cartridge to fire two barbed electrodes connected to the gun by insulated electric wires. When the two barbs penetrate the skin, the electrical current stuns by disrupting electrical signals in the body’s muscles. Some Taser models can be held against the body without firing the cartridge.

According to a police report obtained by the Miami Herald, police officers spotted Hernandez-Llach spray painting a vacant building. The teen fled and, when cornered a block away, bolted toward an officer, who deployed the Taser, according to the report. The cause of death is under investigation, but some Taser critics are wondering if the teen suffered a cardiac arrest.

“Falling forward brings the heart almost a centimeter closer to the chest, and therefore closer to the Taser barbs,” says Dr. Douglas Zipes, a cardiologist and distinguished professor of medicine, pharmacology and toxicology at Indiana University of Medicine.

Zipes authored a paper published last year in the American Heart Association journal Circulation that analyzed eight cases of healthy men who suffered cardiac arrest after receiving shocks from Tasers. Seven of them died. He concluded that the electricity from the Taser devices can provoke cardiac arrest and even death by revving up the heartbeat, although the frequency of such deaths is unknown.

“The risk is small, but I can’t say how small,” say Zipes, who recommends that police who use Tasers avoid the chest, pull the trigger only once, and assume any tasered individuals who are unresponsive are suffering cardiac arrest and begin resuscitation measures.

Taser devices are used by nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries and in 29 out of the 34 largest U.S. cities, according to Taser International.

Taser disputes Zipes’ conclusions because he has testified for plaintiffs who have sued the company. But Zipes says that without such experience, his paper would not have been possible. “Those data came from my work as a plaintiff expert in those cases, where I had access to police records and medical records and so on.”

Instead, the company points to a 2011 special report from the U.S. Justice Department, which concluded that the risk of human death directly or primarily because of the electrical effects of Taser devices “has not been conclusively demonstrated.” However, the report acknowledged that there are anecdotal cases where “no other significant risk factor for death is known.”

“The question of whether or not Taser-type devices can harm or kill someone has been settled. The answer is unequivocally yes,” says Dr. William Bozeman, a member of the medical advisory panel for the Justice Department report and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “However, the likelihood is extremely low,” perhaps no more than a quarter of a percent.

Most injuries or deaths that have occurred, says Bozeman, are from blunt trauma. Someone is Tasered, their muscles lock up, and they fall, sometimes from a dangerous height, he says. Or the Taser’s spark ignites flammable liquid on or near the suspect. Cardiac arrest, he says, is rare.

In any case, “As you look at the options that police have, such as batons, Tasers, pepper sprays or firearms, the question is which of those options is the safest for the officer and the suspect,” says Bozeman. Studies of Taser use “suggest that the Taser is as safe as and probably safer than those other options in terms of causing injury or causing death,” he says.

Still, since September 2009, the company has recommended that officers aim the devices below the chest. But the Miami Beach Police Department’s Taser guidelines say nothing about avoiding the chest, according to a copy obtained by New Times.