Tasers are a less-lethal way that police use to make arrests in the United States. Delivering 50,000 volts of electricity to the body, the effects of the Taser on the human brain have largely been unknown–until now.
New research at Drexel University and Arizona State University reveals that the burst of electricity from a stun gun can impair a person’s ability to remember and process information. Volunteer participants were subjected to Taser shocks and tested for cognitive impairment. Some showed short-term declines in cognitive functioning comparable to dementia, raising serious questions about the ability of police suspects to understand their rights at the point of arrest.
“The findings of this study have considerable implications for how the police administer Miranda warnings,” said Robert J. Kane, one of the study’s authors. “If suspects are cognitively impaired after being Tased, when should police begin asking them questions? There are plenty of people in prison who were Tased and then immediately questioned. Were they intellectually capable of giving ‘knowing’ and ‘valid’ waivers of their Miranda rights before being subjected to a police interrogation? We felt we had moral imperative to fully understand the Tasers’ potential impact on decision-making faculties in order to protect individuals’ due process rights.”
According to researchers, while the cognitive effects of the Taser were short-term, the severity of the disruption was considerable. The mean Hopkins Verbal Learning Test score for each group at pre-test was 26 – just above the national average. At post-test, one quarter of each Taser group scored below 20, which represents the mean level cognitive functioning for 79-year-old adults, placing participants within the range of mild cognitive impairment. White said “our test administrators could clearly observe the difficulty many participants had with the HVLT after TASER exposure.”
“Tasers are a great alternative to deadly force. When used in lieu of firearms, Tasers can save lives,” said Kane. “But using a Taser is not without risk. Although they are considered safe when used on healthy people, people have died from being Tased. They should be treated as a dangerous weapon.”
The results also showed that Taser exposure caused significant negative change in several subjective state self-measures, including concentration difficulty, anxiety level and feeling overwhelmed. The significant findings in the subjective state measures raise the possibility that emotional factors after Taser exposure are important and may affect test performance.
“Being shocked had a traumatic effect on some participants,” said Kane. “Some were emotionally debilitated by the experience.”
The researchers point out that study participants were high-functioning, healthy young people who were accustomed to test taking and were sober and drug free at the time they were Tased, and thus, were functioning at a much higher level of cognition than do the ‘typical’ suspects in the field who experience Taser exposure at the hands of police officers. “We would expect ‘typical’ suspects – who may be high, drunk or mentally ill and in crisis at the time of exposure – to experience even greater impairment to cognitive functioning as the result of Taser exposure,” said Kane.”
The questions driving this study involve serious issues including constitutionally protected rights of the accused, use of force by police and previously unexamined effects of the Taser on the human body.
“When police take suspects into custody, they read them their Miranda rights, which state that suspects have the right to remain silent, and anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law,” said Kane. “The findings from this study suggest that people who have been shocked with a Taser may be unable to understand and rationally act upon his or her legal rights, and may be more likely to waive their Miranda rights directly after Taser exposure or to give inaccurate information to investigators. These decisions can have profound impact on an eventual judicial finding of guilt or innocence.”
The researchers suggest a public dialogue about how to best integrate the Taser into everyday lawful policing in ways that maintain officer safety while reducing potential social costs incurred by suspects exposed to a Taser discharge. They ask: “What would it cost police to wait 60 minutes after a Taser deployment before engaging suspects in custodial interrogations?”