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NIJ In-Custody Death Study: The Impact of Use of Conducted Energy Devices

Date Published
March 28, 2011

While exposure to conducted energy devices (CEDs) is not risk free, there is no conclusive medical evidence that indicates a high risk of serious injury or death from the direct effects of CEDs. Field experience with CED use indicates that exposure is safe in the vast majority of cases. Therefore, law enforcement agencies need not refrain from deploying CEDs, provided the devices are used in accordance with accepted national guidelines.

The purported safety margins of CED deployment on normal healthy adults may not be applicable in small children, those with diseased hearts, the elderly, those who are pregnant and other at-risk individuals. The use of a CEDs against these populations (when recognized) should be avoided, but may be necessary if the situation excludes other reasonable options.

Underlying medical conditions may be responsible for behavior that requires subdual by law enforcement, including the use of CEDs. Abnormal mental status in a combative or resistive subject may be associated with a risk for sudden death. This should be treated as a medical emergency.

A review of deaths following CED exposure indicated that many were associated with continuous or repeated discharge of the CED. There may be circumstances in which repeated or continuous exposure is required, but law enforcement officers should be aware that the associated risks are unknown. Therefore, caution is urged in using multiple activations of CEDs as a means to accomplish subdual.

See also The Research in Brief Police Use of Force, Tasers and Other Less-Lethal Weapons (pdf, 28 pages).

NIJ In-Custody Death Study: Background

An increasing number of law enforcement agencies use conducted energy devices (CEDs) (the most common is Taser). At the same time, the number of deaths associated with the technology also has increased. 

NIJ commissioned a study to help understand whether the technology can contribute to or cause death and, if so, in what ways. The study is one of several NIJ-funded research projects on Conducted Energy Devices.

The study, titled "Deaths Following Electro-Muscular Disruption" began in May 2006. The final report, Study of Deaths Following Electro-Muscular Disruption (pdf, 74 pages), was issued in 2010. See also an interim report (pdf, 21 pages).

The study's steering group was co-chaired by the NIJ Deputy Director for Science and Technology and a medical examiner appointed by the National Association of Medical Examiners. The group also included representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the College of American Pathologists.

The steering group selected members of the mortality review panel described below.

Mortality Reviews

A distinguished panel of doctors conducted mortality reviews on deaths associated with CEDs. Findings from an autopsy and toxicological analysis were combined with findings from the scene investigation, post-exposure symptoms and post-event medical care. The panel assessed any diseases the subject may have had to find out whether the disease may have contributed to or caused the death.

The panel members included a cardiologist, an emergency medicine doctor, five medical examiners and a toxicologist. Consulting specialists were available to the panel as needed and included an anesthesiologist, clinical pathologist, epidemiologist, electrical engineer, neurologist and psychiatrist.

Date Published: March 28, 2011