Thursday, December 06, 2007

Electronic control devices and death

I have been following an ongoing discussion of electronic control device use associated death (aka Stun Gun, etc; yes, I am avoiding naming name brands).

There are folks that say the deaths don’t happen do to these devices (heavily weighted by manufacturer representatives and those whose speaking fees are at times covered by manufacturers). They contend that somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 law enforcement folks have been zapped in training demonstrations without a reported death, so how can you say that they kill?

But deaths have been reported related to the use of these electronic control devices and not just the weird one’s like the gentleman who was zapped after dousing himself with gasoline and was set afire or the gentleman zapped on the edge of a bridge, knocked off and drowned.

From reading available materials it seems that the cause of death is likely related to 2 causes with a third less supported possible cause.

First, is the possible of a heart dysrythmia causing death. These folks collapse and die quickly, in around 20 seconds. Likely for this to occur the prongs have to hit the individual in the chest over the heart and the individual must be relatively thin (the electric shock does not penetrate very deeply). Nobody knows if someone at greater risk for dysrythmia is more likely to develop them with zapping, not a doable study.

The second possible mechanism of death is increased physiologic “stress”. This stress results from muscle contraction of patterned tonic-clonic muscle effects superimposed on catecholamines released due to pain and fear, often with a contribution post-exertion effects on the body. These folks die with a terminal collapse within minutes (“few to many”) of the last shock they received.

I would also like to mention here that both of the above mechanisms are made more likely by the superimposition of adrenergic-like drugs, e.g. cocaine and methamphetamine.

The third proposed is asphyxia related to muscle tetany or excessive tonicity from the zap. This may be a contributor in cases of prolonged administered shock seen in some cases with certain equipment, but seems uncertain. As mentioned above the electrical current doesn’t penetrate far so it is generally unlikely that this would contribute in any but a few rare cases (there are no absolutes in medicine). I should mention here that it is thought that the generalized apparent muscle effects seen with the use of these devices is a secondary spinal nerve effect. However, again, no one is going to do a randomized, controlled study to define the effects of these devices, there is always that rare risk of death no matter what some folks say.


Anonymous said...

When and why did these devices become such a necessity for law enforcement officers, and so widespread?

GeorgeH said...

I've been zapped, and I don't doubt that high voltage can occasionally cause death, but then so can almost anything else.

No officer is going to let someone walk away from them, or put their hands in their pockets while talking to them. They can't and survive.

The advantage of a zapper is that when it ends, it ends. Pepper spray will leave someone with hours of misery after, and that is the least ugly alternative. The other alternative is to grab the person by the arm, doing your best to break or dislocate it, throw them face down on the ground and land on them with your knees to attempt to handcuff them. I'll take my chances getting zapped over those any day.