The Department of Justice has begun to study Tasers, the electric guns that are increasingly popular with police, in the face of new questions over their safety.
Rusty York, the police chief of Fort Wayne, Ind., said that a Justice Department researcher, Joyce Gammelmo, contacted him last week to follow up on a report in a local newspaper that the city had decided to buy Tasers after studying them since early 2003. Gammelmo wanted to know more about Fort Wayne’s research, York said.
After York outlined his department’s work, Gammelmo encouraged him to conduct more research before buying the guns, York said. More than 70 people have died after being shocked with Tasers, though the company that makes the weapons, Scottsdale-based Taser International, says the deaths were not related to their use.
York said he had independently decided to delay the purchase even before Gammelmo’s call. Too many questions about the safety of Tasers remain unanswered, he said.
Gammelmo did not return calls for comment. A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice said that it neither encourages nor discourages police from buying Tasers but that it has begun to study their safety and effectiveness. The department has financed a study at the University of Wisconsin to determine how electrical currents move through the body, as well as a study at Wake Forest to examine injuries caused by Tasers and similar weapons in reallife situations.
Tasers are pistol-shaped weapons that fire electrified darts up to 21 feet, shocking suspects with a charge that temporarily causes severe muscle contractions. More than 5,500 police departments and prisons equip their officers with Tasers, compared with only a handful five years ago.
Human rights groups and independent scientists have criticized the growing use of Tasers, saying their safety has not been properly studied. But Taser sales continue to rise, along with the stock of Taser International.
Taser International’s stock has risen 100-fold in two years, enriching the company’s executives and directors, who have sold shares worth $140 million since November 2003. Among the biggest gainers is the former New York police chief, Bernard Kerik, a Taser board member who has been nominated as the next secretary of homeland security.
A spokesman for Taser said he could not comment on Fort Wayne’s decision and did not know whether the Justice Department was encouraging police departments to examine the risks of Tasers.
Joseph Estey, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the association had not taken a position on Tasers.
The group is working with the Justice Department to examine issues surrounding the weapons, Estey said.
York, the Fort Wayne police chief, said he did not know whether the Justice Department had contacted other police chiefs. He said he had decided to delay buying Tasers because he wanted more information about their risks.
‘‘The information is a little bit limited,’’ he said.
‘‘If we do anything, we would do a very limited pilot project, but I’m not sure we’re going to even do that.’’
Fort Wayne had received a federal grant of $86,000, enough to buy 83 guns, York said.
Taser International says its weapons are safe under almost all circumstances. Coroners have never declared Tasers the primary cause of death in an autopsy, the company says.
But scientists and biomedical engineers who have examined the device say that Taser International has not properly studied its risks and has little evidence it is safe.