Skip to main content

The first study to look at the effects of a Taser shock on the human brain has produced unsettling results that will have major implications for police encounters. People are often questioned and/or read their Miranda rights just after being Tased, but researchers found that receiving 50,000 volts of electricity can cause a state of short-term cognitive impairment comparable to dementia.

Tasers have become the tool of choice for law enforcement “less than lethal weapons,” with two million citizens being subjected to the devices. They can indeed be lethal, however, as 47 Americans died after being Tased last year. Tasers do not seem to reduce the number of people shot to death by police either, and they are often deployed needlessly.

Calvon Reid, who was simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, was Tased to death by two cops at the same time while two other cops stood by. A witness said the cops could have easily manhandled Reid, but they were just “punishing him.”

Considering the eagerness with which cops tend to deploy Tasers, the new study may force changes in the way that law enforcement handles suspects who have been shocked. It appeared in the journal Criminology & Public Policy last month, with lead authors Robert J. Kane and Michael D. White.

“New research from a first-of-its-kind human study by 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. In a randomized control trial, 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.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Interestingly, the study “marks the first time that the Taser has been submitted to a major randomized clinical trial on a community sample outside the purview of Taser International.” This raises serious questions about whether the company, in pushing the devices to law enforcement, adequately tested its product or showed all of its results.

The 142 participants in this study underwent a host of cognitive tests before and after receiving the shock. Results from the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test showed the greatest effect, with significant reductions in verbal learning and memory. There were also negative changes in other parameters, “including concentration difficulty, anxiety level and feeling overwhelmed.” These effects lasted no more than an hour, on average.

“The findings of this study have considerable implications for how the police administer Miranda warnings,” said Kane. “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.”

It should also be noted that the study participants were healthy young people who were sober and drug-free at the time of testing. Since cops using their Tasers are often dealing with people who are “high, drunk or mentally ill and in crisis at the time of exposure,” we would expect these people to experience even greater cognitive impairment after being Tased.

“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.”

We should expect Taser International and police unions--both having a vested interest in electrocuting citizens--to begin a propaganda campaign and insist there is nothing to see here.