Police use of Tasers ends in hundreds of deaths like Daunte Wright

The fatal shooting this month of Daunte Wright by a Minnesota patrol officer who allegedly confused her pistol for a Taser had every appearance of a freak accident.

Tasers are designed as nonlethal weapons, a tool for law enforcement officers to safely subdue noncompliant suspects. Had officer Kim Potter drawn the intended weapon and tased Wright instead of shooting him, the 20-year-old Black man might be alive today.

Yet Potter’s mistake was no anomaly.

It’s part of a pattern of sloppy, reckless and deadly use of the weapon involved in hundreds of deaths and injuries in the past decade because of substandard or inconsistent training for law enforcement, an investigation by USA TODAY and the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University found. 

Officers in many cases defied best practices recommended by device manufacturers and sidestepped basic use-of-force protocols.

20-year-old Daunte Wright was shot by a single bullet after Minnesota police say an officer accidentally pulled out a gun instead of Taser. Police officers have confused Taser-like devices with their service weapons at least 16 times since 2001, USA TODAY has found. Four instances ended in death, including Daunte Wright.
City of Brooklyn Center, AP

In July 2013, a Chicago police officer tased a pregnant woman three times – including once in the abdomen – after she pretended to use her cellphone to record authorities towing her van. She miscarried her baby.

Four years later, two Arlington, Texas, police officers fired a Taser at a 39-year-old suicidal man after watching him douse himself with gasoline. The electrical currents immediately set Gabriel Olivas aflame and burned down his house. Olivas died of his injuries a few days later. 

Two years after that, Louisiana state troopers tased 49-year-old Ronald Greene at least three times in 20 seconds after he failed to stop his car for an unspecified traffic violation. Police initially told Greene’s family he died from crash injuries. But a medical report noted that his bruised and bloodied body also had two Taser probes still lodged in his back.

Family members of Ronald Greene listen to speakers as they gather at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington August 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C. A police video — not yet made public — reportedly shows Greene being tased before his 2019 death at least 3 times over 20 seconds and again as he lay on his belly before he was hog-tied, shackled, beaten and dragged.

Family members of Ronald Greene listen to speakers as they gather at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington August 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C. A police video — not yet made public — reportedly shows Greene being tased before his 2019 death at least 3 times over 20 seconds and again as he lay on his belly before he was hog-tied, shackled, beaten and dragged.
Michael M. Santiago, Getty Images

Such incidents highlight a lack of uniform state or national standards for the use of conducted-energy weapons like Tasers and comprehensive training for the officers who wield them.

No federal agency tracks how many people are killed or seriously injured after Taser use by law enforcement officers, nor how many departments are equipped with the devices. And no one keeps tabs on how many law enforcement agencies adopt the dozens of safety guidelines recommended by device manufacturers and other police training organizations.

One of the few sources tracking fatalities is an online database started by a former newspaper editor.

Since 2010, there have been at least 513 cases in which subjects died soon after police used Tasers on them, according to fatalencounters.org. Examples from the data include a man who fell to the ground and hit his head after being tased and many more who die after losing consciousness, sometimes hours after they were tased. Because there’s no government source for the data, the actual totals are undoubtedly higher, the website’s founder said.

Reporters at USA TODAY and the Arnolt Center scoured hundreds of pages of arrest and court documents from Pennsylvania to California, interviewed dozens of attorneys, law enforcement and criminal justice experts, and analyzed scores of documents. Among the findings:

  • In the absence of federal guidance, most decisions about Taser use and training are left to individual agencies. While some have adopted strict Taser policies and use-of-force reports, others give officers the tool without training. The result is a hodgepodge of guidelines with no outside oversight.
  • Compared with firearms training, Taser instruction is treated as an afterthought in many departments and training academies. The Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, for example, does not include Taser training in its 16-week police cadet training curriculum. One suburban Philadelphia police department allowed virtually all its officers to carry Tasers with lapsed certifications.
  • Taser-like devices are marketed as a less-lethal option for emergency self-defense and preventing harm. But police have been accused of using them as punishment, repeatedly firing 50,000 volts of electricity into people when there is no apparent imminent threat of harm, temporarily paralyzing the nervous system and muscles.
  • Four of five cases that ended in death began as calls for nonviolent incidents, and 84% were unarmed. In cases where race could be determined, Black people accounted for nearly 40% of those killed, about three times their share of the U.S. population.

“Mistakes happen,” said Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “But if mistakes happen over and over, they are not necessarily mistakes.”

Law enforcement and device manufacturers argue that Tasers and similar weapons have saved more lives than they’ve ended since law-enforcement agencies started using them more than two decades ago.

When used properly, such devices allow police officers to bring under control threatening and unruly subjects without the need for deadly force or physical restraint maneuvers, supporters say. They minimize the risk of harm to suspects and officers. 

While no reliable data exists on how often law enforcement uses weapons like Tasers, a 2011 Department of Justice report cited survey-based studies that put the risk of death from the devices at less than 0.25%, or 1 in 400.


fatal shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man, by Philadelphia police last year, Wallace’s family called on the city to equip more officers with Tasers, saying he could still be alive had the officers who responded to his mental health crisis carried them. 

Yet there’s “no evidence” that Tasers reduce police use of firearms, according to a 2018 University of Chicago study that also found the devices had no impact on injury rates or the number of injuries in civilians. They did, though, reduce the rate of police injury.

Some experts suggest Taser’s reputation as a “less lethal” weapon may give officers a false sense of security.

“It’s not like a nightstick where you can control it,” said William McKnight, a former police officer and visiting criminal justice professor at Stockton University in New Jersey. “Once you fire it, it’s gone.”

Is police training adequate?

The company behind the best-known and most widely used conducted-energy weapon sold its first Taser to police in Florida in 1998. 

The technology had been around for more than 20 years by then but was slow to catch on because the original version used darts propelled by gunpowder, so the weapon was treated like a firearm under the law.

Jack Cover, an aerospace scientist working with Taser International Inc., modified the weapon in 1993 so it was powered by compressed nitrogen, allowing Tasers to be more widely marketed, according to his 2009 New York Times obituary. 

That same year, New Jersey became the last state to authorize the use of Taser-like weapons for law enforcement. They are now legal to sell and own in at least 46 states and Puerto Rico.  

In an email response to questions, the company – which changed its name to Axon Enterprises in 2017 – disputed the number of deaths “causally related to the use of Taser.” Axon put the total at 26 since the device was developed, with most deaths occurring from falls and fires.

Where an allegation of a “Taser-related” death occurs, the most common causes are drug intoxication and heart disease, the company said.

Axon said training should include “both Axon Academy training, where users gain the knowledge necessary for the appropriate use of Taser energy weapons, as well as practical and scenario-based training, which helps develop important skills for a successful deployment in the field.”

Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Timothy Fetzer, a supervisor with the Use of Force Unit, demonstrates proper Taser use during a presentation last year. While billed as non-lethal weapons that help police safely subdue suspects, the use of Tasers by police has also occurred in hundreds of cases that ended in death.
Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Timothy Fetzer, a supervisor with the Use of Force Unit, demonstrates proper Taser use during a presentation last year. While billed as non-lethal weapons that help police safely subdue suspects, the use of Tasers by police has also occurred in hundreds of cases that ended in death.
Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Timothy Fetzer, a supervisor with the Use of Force Unit, demonstrates proper Taser use during a presentation last year. While billed as non-lethal weapons that help police safely subdue suspects, the use of Tasers by police has also occurred in hundreds of cases that ended in death.
Michele Haddon, Bucks County Courier Times

But Taser training is too often cursory, use-of-force experts said. They described most departments’ enforcement of guidelines as weak, outdated and sometimes contradictory to established best practices. 

Taser training primarily focuses on how to operate the weapon, which is not good enough, said Lon Bartel, a Taser master trainer and director of training and curriculum for VirTra, an Arizona-based company that uses virtual reality to replicate real-life scenarios for law enforcement officers.  

“You don’t just draw your Taser and fire,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the right tool, and sometimes it’s not.” 

Fewer than 1 in 3 officers have been trained in how to switch from a Taser to a firearm and vice versa as the situation changes, Bartel said.  

Guidelines and warnings ignored 

As early as 2005, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national nonprofit policy organization, issued 52 guidelines calling for tighter restrictions on the use of Taser-like devices, including barring use on passive or fleeing subjects, barring use by multiple officers on a single person, and requiring mandatory safety training.  

But the group cannot force adoption of its guidelines and said it doesn’t know how many of the 18,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies have done so.

The same is true when Axon urges changes in how its weapons are used.

For example, the company in 2009 urged officers to carry Tasers on the “weak draw” side of the gun belt to reduce the risk of pulling the wrong weapon. Since 2001, police officers have confused Taser-like devices with their service weapons at least 16 times, USA TODAY has found. Four instances ended in death, including Daunte Wright.

Yet the Roeland Park Police Department in Kansas did not update its use-of-force policy to reflect Axon’s recommended change until three days after Wright’s April 11 shooting death in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

Brooklyn Center’s use-of-force policy required weak-draw Taser placement at the time of Wright’s death. The city’s police chief, Tim Gannon, said in a news conference this month that Potter was trained to carry her sidearm on the right side of her duty belt and her Taser on the left.

Axon also has issued warnings since at least 2017 that repeated Taser hits increase the risk for serious injury and death. 

But a lawsuit claims those warnings were ignored by the Wilson, Oklahoma, Police Department, whose use-of-force policy did not prohibit repeated Taser strikes when two officers killed 28-year-old Jared Lakey in July 2019. 

The officers fired their Tasers 53 times over nine minutes at the unarmed and naked man as he lay on the ground, according to the lawsuit. Lakey died two days later. The former officers face charges of second-degree murder.

In California, Taser training is not mandated as part of minimum police cadet training requirements. That’s a major concern to Randy Shrewsberry, executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform in Los Angeles and a former police officer, who fears without proper training officers may turn to Tasers in circumstances when minimal or no force would have been sufficient.

“We encourage lawmakers to not only evaluate the minimal training requirements that are offered but examine data for the efficacy of reducing deadly encounters,” he said.

The Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union shared similar concerns after finding a “profound variation and lack of consistency in regulating officer’s behavior” among Taser policies for the state’s 99 sheriff offices in an analysis released in 2014. The ACLU’s efforts to push for legislation on statewide requirements was never acted upon.