The recent use of a Taser stun gun on the nephew of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is raising questions as to whether the weapons are appropriate in a hospital setting.
Taser stun guns are commonly used by law enforcement agencies to subdue unruly suspects without having to resort to firearms. However, according to a Washington Post report, the devices are finding increasing deployment in hospitals and mental health care settings throughout the United States.
On July 8, Derek Thomas, Justice Thomas’s 25-year-old nephew, was Tasered when he tried to leave West Jefferson Hospital in Marrero, Louisiana, against doctor’s orders. His family relayed the story to media outlets, but the hospital has refused to comment on the incident.
Thomas was admitted to the hospital that day after what local media claimed was a suicide attempt. Orderlies allegedly told Thomas to put on a hospital gown, which he refused to do. Then Thomas tried to leave and security guards attempted to subdue him. Thomas’s sister said that one of the guards punched him, pulled out some of his hair and then shocked him with a Taser weapon. Thomas, who is epileptic, suffered a seizure a short time later.
The incident comes about a month after a Taser wrongful death lawsuit was filed by the family of an Ohio man who died after being stunned in the psychiatric ward of University Hospital in Cincinnati. That lawsuit claims that Kelly Brinson, 45, was defenseless and sedated when seven University of Cincinnati police entered his room, stunned him with a Taser gun, secured him to his bed and then stunned him again. He went into cardiac arrest and died after three days on a respirator.
According to the Washington Post, 151 hospitals across the U.S. have security teams that employ Taser weapons. Experts differ on whether the use of the weapons is appropriate in a hospital setting, however.
Dr. Jeffrey Ho wrote a paper in 2009 and determined that stun guns can be used to control patients who become violent and can defuse dangerous situations, preventing injury. He conducted a one-year study of their use at the University of Minnesota hospital, where he works as an emergency room doctor.
However, Robert Philibert, a psychiatry, genetics and neurosciences professor at the University of Iowa, who has written about Taser use in psychiatric settings, disagrees. Philibert has said that the growing use of Tasers in health care is an extremely troubling trend and said they should only be used in extreme instances where there is a serious threat of death or severe injury.
Scottsdale-based Taser International has vigorously defended the safety of their weapons. Despite a number of deaths that have occurred throughout the United States shortly after Taser use, the manufacturer maintains that the charge delivered by the stun guns is not life threatening. However, last fall, the company issued a memo to police agencies throughout the United States warning officers to avoid Taser shots to the chest.
Taser has said it issued the warning not because it believes that the weapons are dangerous, but as a means of legal risk management for law enforcement agencies using their weapons. However, critics have characterized the recommendations as a passive admission that Taser stun guns can cause heart attacks. Taser has disagreed with this interpretation of their recommendations.
In 2008, Amnesty International released a report on Taser police use, calling for departments throughout the United States to stop using Taser guns or to strictly limit their use to life-threatening situations. The human rights group linked 334 deaths to the use of Taser guns between 2001 and August 2008. Amnesty noted that 90% of the Taser deaths examined involved people who were unarmed and did not appear to present a serious threat to the officers. A large number of the fatalities involved misuse of the weapons, including multiple Taser shocks or exposing suspects to prolonged shocks.