Rod McCullom is a scientific writer based in Chicago who writes for Undark’s “Convictions” section. Undark, Scientific American, Nature, The Atlantic, and The Nation, among other journals, have published his work. This piece first appeared in Undark.
The images are graphic and upsetting: Jahmel Leach, 16, lies on a hospital bed with a swollen face and a deep, bleeding slash across his right cheek. The photos were taken last June, just after New York City Police Department officers detained the Bronx adolescent during the protests following the death of George Floyd.
According to Leach’s family and attorney, the youngster was injured after being blasted three times by a Taser in the head, leg, and shoulder. According to his relatives, the darts pierced his skin, and he was then pummelling by cops, who broke his jaw and caused him to lose nearly all of his teeth. Leach claims he was wrongfully targeted while passing through a demonstration. The NYPD claims the boy was lighting rubbish on fire and produced CCTV videos to back up their allegations.
The event has raised more concerns than answers concerning the use of Tasers on children and teenagers.
Axon Enterprise, formerly known as Taser International, manufactures these “energy weapons,” purportedly carried by an estimated 400,000 law enforcement agents in the United States.
Tasers were first introduced in 1993 and were advertised as a “non-lethal” alternative to weapons. They are currently sold as a “less lethal” alternative to weapons. In 2020, the company’s overall revenue will be $226 million, thanks to the gadgets and related software sales.
“Independent studies have found that the use of Taser electric weapons involves a risk that is comparable to or lower than that of most other use-of-force alternatives,” “And it has a far lower risk of injury than physical force,” an Axon representative stated in an emailed statement.
However, there is a startling dearth of research on how Taser exposure affects adolescents and teenagers. While some evidence suggests that teens are not at higher risk than adults, the literature is severely lacking, and some experts are eager to learn more. Furthermore, with restrictions and data gathering differing by state, there is limited data on when, when, and how many youths are exposed. According to the little statistics available, African American children, teens, and youths are overrepresented among those shocked by Tasers.
Michael White, a criminologist at Arizona State University, has done a substantial study on police use of force and told me he is concerned about the data gaps. He says, “It’s an area where we need to make a lot more effort.”
The Taser is a compact portable electroshock weapon that incapacitates a person for a short period. A burst of compressed nitrogen propels two barbed electrodes linked to the gadget via insulated copper wires when the trigger is squeezed. The electrodes are attached to the body and deliver around 1,200 to 1,400 volts of electricity.
According to Raphael Lee, a surgeon and professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering who studies traumatic injuries at the molecular level, tasers target the nerves that govern the skeletal muscles, momentarily paralyzing the neuromuscular system. Because these nerves are the body’s most extended cells, they can quickly communicate and coordinate complicated motions.
In most Taser versions utilized by law enforcement, the cycle lasts five seconds. However, according to Lee, experts are unsure if there are any long-term impacts.
According to the physician-scientist, it takes a small fraction of nerves to cause a reaction across the entire neuromuscular system. Researchers would seek to identify any nerves that the Taser had directly activated to see if there were any long-term repercussions. This is a time-consuming and demanding process. Despite this, Lee, the first surgeon to get the coveted MacArthur Fellowship, adds, “we are researching.”
The weapons’ safety has been a source of contention for decades. According to a 2017 Reuters study, at least 1,000 Americans have died after being shocked by Tasers while being arrested or in jails or prisons since the early 2000s. Many of the victims were vulnerable people, according to the news agency’s correspondents. A quarter of those who died, for example, was suffering from mental health or neurological issues.
According to the Reuters article, it was hard to precisely tell what role the Taser had in a person’s death in many cases. The shocks have been linked to arrhythmia and cardiac arrest in studies. There have also been reports of strokes and respiratory difficulties.
Following a rash of wrongful death cases, Axon issued more stringent product warnings for Tasers in 2010. “Using an energy weapon on specific groups might raise the danger of death or serious injury,” the corporation advises today. Those who are pregnant, infirm, old, or have a low BMI, such as a bit of child, are among the higher-risk populations.”
In my conversations with scientists and policymakers, they all expressed a desire to learn more about how Taser exposure impacts children’s and teens’ physical and cognitive development. However, research is scarce, which is unlikely to change for one simple reason: juveniles.
Glenn Ellis, a visiting researcher at Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care and a bioethics fellow at Harvard Medical School, emphasizes that children can often not provide informed permission. A scientific review board, according to Ellis, would not accept clinical experiments involving adolescents exposed to electroshocks for weapons development.
“Would getting clearance for research like this even be ethical?” Ellis inquires. “No,” says the narrator.
On the other hand, researchers have devised tests to see how college students, some as young as 18 and 19, react when struck with a Taser. In a research of 142 Arizona State University students, White and his co-author, Drexel University professor Robert Kane, discovered that students who were hit by a Taser experienced an hour-long drop-in cognitive perform This is thought to be one of the earliest studies on the effects of Taser exposure on the brain.
Following these results, White adds, “we issued a proposal that in situations where police officers tased a suspect, they should not examine a person for an hour unless there are exigent circumstances.” He also mentions that the findings may be more prominent in vulnerable groups and children.
There are little public data on the degree of the physical damage suffered by teenagers like Jahmel Leach, who have been struck with Tasers. Adolescents were “not at a considerably higher risk than adults” for severe injuries after being shocked with Tasers by law enforcement personnel, according to a 2012 research done by an emergency medical team located at Wake Forest University. However, only 100 juveniles were included in the dataset from ten law enforcement agencies, out of a total of nearly 2,000 Taser events.
Kane informs me that there are no national rules or regulations for how Tasers should be used. According to him, some police agencies define Taser use as a “pain compliance” approach, which refers to pain-inducing measures used to coerce an unwilling subject to follow an officer’s orders. He continues, “That’s insane,” since “that implies you can tase an eight- or 12-year-old kid.” You have no idea how it will affect their long-term cerebral development.”
There is no publicly available information on the amount of school resource officers that carry Tasers.
Officers in certain police agencies have been given specific permission to deploy Tasers on youngsters. Officers in the Cincinnati Police Department, for example, were formerly permitted to deploy Tasers on people ranging in age from seven to seventy. After an officer deployed a Taser on an 11-year-old African-American child accused of stealing in 2018, the department was chastised. Officers are now instructed to avoid using weapons on young children, according to a policy change made in January 2019.
Other departmental policies on age are ambiguous. In February 2020, the Chicago Police Department published an eight-page set of Taser usage guidelines, advising officers to evaluate a “subject’s apparent age.” School resource officers—law enforcement officials in charge of safety within schools—should only use Tasers against kids when their “apparent age, stature, and threat” create an “urgent” need, according to the one-paragraph directive.
There is no publicly available information on the amount of school resource officers that carry Tasers. An Axon spokesman responded in an emailed response to my inquiry that the business does not have this information, nor does it collect data on the number of pupils shocked by Tasers at schools. Similarly, according to a spokeswoman for the National Association of School Resource Officers, the organization does not collect this information and is unaware of any “similar metrics accessible.”
According to The Hechinger Report, a digital journal that reports on “innovation and inequality in education,” at least 84 kids were Tasered by school resource and police officers between September 2011 and August 2016. However, that number was labeled as “a huge understatement.” Because “not every occurrence is documented, and no state or federal entity tracks how often youngsters are zapped at schools,” it solely accounts for public news reports.
According to Kane, individual police agencies are often unwilling to release their use-of-force data. When I was trying to figure out how many times Chicago school resource police had used Tasers on children in recent years, I rapidly realized this. In emails, I enquired of two Chicago Public Schools officials. I was directed to the Chicago Police Department by one of them. I emailed the police department and was sent to the schools as a result.
The reported tales of Tasers being used on kids around the country are often frightening and highly violent, and the youngsters are disproportionately African American, at least anecdotally. After bodycam videotape revealed their harsh arrest and use of Tasers on two Black college students, six Atlanta police officers were prosecuted. A lawsuit filed by the parents of a 16-year-old female African American special needs student pulled down a staircase and stunned with a Taser by school authorities was recently resolved by Chicago’s city council.
Connecticut is the only state that makes demographic information on police Taser use public. According to Emma Roche, a University of California, Los Angeles law student and recent University of Colorado graduate whose senior honors thesis is one of the few published datasets on this subject, Black juveniles are “over-represented among tastings.” In 2016, Connecticut police officers deployed Tasers on 542 people. Thirty-seven of them were minors between the ages of seven and seventeen. According to Roche, three-fifths of all youngsters were Black, and all eight children under 16 were Black. “Seeing that was quite concerning.”
Officers should be educated to de-escalate disputes with adolescents rather than deploying Tasers, according to White, Kane, and Bocar Ba, a University of California, Irvine economist who also studies police accountability and Taser use. The researchers believe that statistics on how many and how often kids are shocked with guns by police and school resource officers should be made public.
The National Association of School Resource Officers already provides de-escalation training to its members. “I wish we could train every school resource officer in the country,” says Mo Canady, the executive director of the Alabama-based group and 25-year veteran police and school resource officer. De-escalation strategies, such as speaking in a less threatening tone and treating pupils with tremendous respect in front of their classmates, are emphasized throughout the classes, according to Canady, as well as “special needs kids [and] teenage mental health issues” training.
Meanwhile, Jahmel Leach’s charges against him have been withdrawn by the Bronx district attorney’s office in New York City. The family of the teen has launched a lawsuit against the New York Police Department.