Taser International is recommending that law enforcement agencies across the nation avoid shooting its stun guns at suspects' chests.
Although not related, the announcement comes on the heels of three deaths this year after suspects were shot with Tasers by Modesto police or Stanislaus sheriff's deputies.
In an Oct. 12 training bulletin, the Arizona-based company says shooting a suspect in the chest poses a risk, albeit extremely low, of an "adverse cardiac event."
Taser officials said the bulletin does not state that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest. They said the advisory means only that law enforcement may reduce its risk of excessive force claims and lawsuits if officers avoid the chest. Taser recommends officers aim at the lower torso when facing a suspect.
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Taser officials say the new recommendation is designed only to "avoid any potential controversy on this topic."
"There is no significant shift," Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said in an e-mail.
Despite the policy's disclaimers and qualifications, a civil rights group said it is a huge change.
"Up to this point, they've been adamant that the risk of cardiac death has been zero," said Peter Bibring, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "This represents a significant shift. I think law enforcement agencies that use Tasers need to re-evaluate their use and ask whether Taser International has understated the risk in the training materials they've provided over the years."
Tasers resemble handguns and shoot darts that deliver 50,000 volts of electricity that disrupt a suspect's muscle control.
The Modesto-Stanislaus branch of the NAACP called last month for independent inquiries into the deaths of three downtown Modesto jail inmates who died this year after Tasers were used to subdue them.
The deaths occurred in April, August and September. Two of the incidents involved sheriff's deputies and one involved Modesto police.
A Stanislaus County district attorney's office investigation into the April death of inmate Craig Prescott said he was shot in the chest at least once with a Taser. He died two days after a struggle with deputies in which he was shot with Tasers and pepper spray. The district attorney concluded jail officials were not criminally responsible for Prescott's death.
A pathologist determined Prescott died of hypertensive heart disease, a finding his family disputes. Family members have said they plan to sue the Sheriff's Department.
Modesto police and the Sheriff's Department are reviewing Taser International's bulletin.
"We absolutely believe they are safe and reduce the number of injuries to officers and suspects," said Modesto police Capt. Gene Balentine. He said his department has used Tasers for a couple of years and has about 150 of them.
Sheriff's Capt. Tim Beck said patrol deputies have used Tasers about 310 times since his department acquired the weapon in June 2004.
He said that number includes incidents in which deputies pulled out Tasers to persuade a suspect to comply, incidents in which deputies shocked a suspect by placing a Taser directly against the individual's body and incidents in which deputies shot a suspect with a Taser.
"We are going to give this its due consideration from a policy perspective," Beck said, adding that the recommendation is in line with his department's policy to avoid firing a Taser at a suspect in a sensitive area, such as the head, face, neck and groin.
Numbers on how many times sheriff's deputies who work in the jails have used Tasers were not available Wednesday.
Taser said its recommendation that officers avoid the chest should be viewed as a "best practice" and to be done when possible.
The company said there can be legitimate circumstances in which officers shoot a suspect in the chest, such as during a violent struggle.
Tasers are viewed as a less lethal option than batons or firearms, but Amnesty International has called for stricter guidelines in their use, because more than 350 people have died in the United States after being shocked by Tasers since 2001.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2316.