The official party line from Taser — who make less-lethal electrical weapons as well as a range of police body-cameras and other forensic devices — is that its weapons don't kill ("no one has died directly from the device's shock"). Reuters reporters who heard this claim decided it was highly suspect and took action, mining America's court records to find "150 autopsy reports citing Tasers as a cause or contributor to deaths," and that those deaths were disproportionately inflicted on "society's vulnerable – unarmed, in psychological distress and seeking help" — all told, they found 1005 deaths in which Tasers were implicated.
Writing for the Global Investigative Journalism Network, Muckrock founder Michael Morisy tells the amazing, inspiring story of how Reuters' team found a neglected investigatory treasure-trove in court records.
"We used a similar process to sort through legal databases, such as Westlaw, Lexis and Pacer. Again, we'd use the broadest possible search parameters to identify any lawsuit involving Tasers (in addition to using 'Taser' as a key word, we also used various iterations of the more generic phrases used to describe these weapons, such as 'electronic control device').
"This process returned thousands of court records, and we went through every one of them to see if it qualified as a Taser-related wrongful death suit (we decided early in the project to focus only on fatalities and opted not to tally injury cases, because the universe simply would have been too large to manage). Reviewing the lawsuits was an enormously time-consuming and painstaking process.
"Our search for lawsuits served two functions: not only was it the basis for our assessment of the litigation burden associated with fatal police incidents involving Tasers, it also turned up scores of deaths that got no coverage from local news media. So if we'd used only news reports as a way to track down fatal incidents involving Tasers, we would have missed a lot of them. This was particularly true in more rural areas or in big cities where a fatal police incident, in itself, might not get covered in local news accounts."
How They Did It: Reuters' Database of Taser Deaths
[Michael Morisy/Global Investigative Journalism Network]