Tasers are used an estimated 904 times a day, on average once every 96 seconds, according to Taser International. More than 16,000 law enforcement agencies use Tasers in 100 countries.
When police spotted 18-year-old graffiti artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez tagging an abandoned McDonald’s in Miami Beach last year, he took off running. What happened when police officers eventually caught up to him would spark international outrage and reignite a long-standing debate over the use of police Tasers.
Through interviews with attorneys, civil rights advocates, medical professionals, and a review of relevant documents, “Tasered: The Israel Hernandez Story,” an original Fusion investigative report, examines the circumstances surrounding the death of the Colombian-born teenager who died after a police officer tasered him in the chest. The documentary examines standard police practices and explores critics’ claims that Tasers are sometimes used inappropriately.
According to Amnesty International, at least 540 people died after being tasered in the United States between 2001-2013. In 60 of those cases the weapon was listed as a cause of death or contributory factor.
On Aug. 6, 2013, Miami Beach Police informed Hernandez’s parents that their son was dead. Israel Sr., Hernandez’s father, was devastated when he heard the news. He demanded answers.”And I ask [the officer], was my son armed? What happened? And he said, ‘no, he wasn’t armed’,” Israel Sr. said in a recent interview, a year after his son’s death.
Miami Beach Police Chief Raymond Martinez said Hernandez led officers on a foot chase before they cornered him. According to police, Hernandez then ran towards one of the officers, who fired his Taser at the teen. Hernandez was pronounced dead shortly after. Police Chief Martinez says the officer was “just trying to do his job.”
The teen’s death, and the media attention it drew, fed into an already existing debate about Tasers and how police use them. Can a device that is designed to deliver 50,000 volts into a person for five seconds truly be considered “non-lethal?”
David Kubiliun, a civil rights attorney in Florida who has worked on similar cases involving alleged police misconduct, argues that Tasers should be considered potentially lethal weapons.
He cites a 2013 Amnesty International report that identified more than 500 Taser-related deaths in the United States since 2001. “I think it’s a deadly weapon,” he said.
Much of the concern over the use of Taser guns has focused on the dangers of “chest shots” —- something the company itself advised against in 2009. Dr. Douglas Zipes of Indiana University made headlines in 2012 after publishing a controversial report in the American Heart Association Journal establishing a connection between Tasers and cardiac arrest.
“There is no question in my mind that Tasers, under certain circumstances, can cause cardiac arrest and sudden death,” he told Fusion.
Taser sales have increased by 800% over the past decade
Taser International says their devices have reduced injuries in police work by at least 60 percent, and have saved more than 128,000 lives “from potential death or serious injury” since the early 1990s. The company says its product saves a life every 30 minutes on its Web site. Fusion asked the company what “saving a life” meant, and they only referred us back to their website, along with a chapter in a book written by someone who was paid by the company.
Despite the potential safety benefits, there are concerns about how the Tasers are used. In a 2011 report, the National Institute of Justice described what it called “lazy cop syndrome,” which leads to officers resorting to Tasers instead of following standard police procedures for apprehension.
“We see this growing list of cases or situations where police have used electro-shock weapons when they almost certainly shouldn’t have,” Baylor Johnson, a spokesperson from the American Civil Liberties Union, told Fusion. “Because it is a weapon of convenience, because it is on their hip and it’s something they can grab.”
“I wouldn’t even treat my dog that way”
Israel Hernandez’s death is not the only Taser-related death to make headlines in South Florida in recent years. George Salgado was a 21-year-old personal trainer who dreamed of becoming a music producer. He died on April 12, 2012, after being hit multiple times in the torso area with a Taser. Two years later, his family is suing the Miami-Dade Police Department for wrongful death.
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner attributed Salgado’s death to a controversial medical condition known as “excited delirium,” an agitated and sudden death usually related to drug use.
“It is dangerously close to intimidation”
The 1980s were a violent decade in Miami. Racial tensions simmered with the arrival of 125,000 Cubans from the Mariel Boatlift. By 1984, Miami-Dade County (then known as simply Dade County) was the country’s murder capital. Wild cocaine-fueled parties led to a large number of hospital visits due to overdoses; the city seemed to be spinning out of control.
It was then that the term “excited delirium” was first coined by Dr. Charles Wetli, associate medical examiner for Dade County, in order to explain cocaine-related deaths for people who did not have enough drugs in their system to overdose. An early controversy with the medical condition came when seventeen women in different parts of the county died of mysterious causes, and Wetli concluded that a cocktail of cocaine and sex had induced the women into a state of excited delirium, resulting in death.
The chief medical examiner later reevaluated the evidence in the deaths and found that the women actually died of strangulation — but Wetli’s concept of “excited delirium” endured.
“Excited (or agitated) delirium is characterized by agitation, aggression, acute distress and sudden death, often in the pre-hospital care setting,” according to a 2011 medical paper that described the condition. “It is typically associated with the use of drugs that alter dopamine processing, hyperthermia, and, most notably, sometimes with death of the affected person in the custody of law enforcement.”
Since 1989, at least 47 deaths have been blamed on excited delirium in Miami-Dade County alone. Twenty-seven of those cases involved police, and seven involved the use of a Taser.
Taser has worked to raise awareness about excited delirium as a legitimate medical condition, including educating law enforcement.
Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognize excited delirium as a medical condition.
David Ovalle, a Miami Herald reporter who has followed Taser-related deaths and controversies, says critics of excited delirium view it as a “junk science” that gets “floated around” to justify the police’s use of force in cases that result in death.
Dr. Deborah Mash, a professor of neurology at University of Miami and an expert witness who has been called to testify in court on behalf of Taser, insists excited delirium is a legitimate medical condition that can result in death.
According to the University of Miami Web site, Taser International paid Mash up to $10,000 in 2010 and up to $5,000 in 2011 for her role as an expert witness.
Mash defends the independence of her research, and says she doesn’t recall the specifics of payment arrangements. “I have never been an employee, nor a consultant, nor has my research been funded by Taser International,” Mash told Fusion. “Often I am called by medical examiners to provide a study to help them rule in or rule out the condition of excited delirium as a contributory cause of death.”
Taser has been sued for product liability a total of 225 times since 1998, according to the company. The majority of the cases have been settled out of court or dismissed by judges. Six cases went to trial, and Taser won four.
The company has also brought cases to court. In 2008, Taser successfully sued a medical examiner in Ohio who listed their weapon as the cause of death in three cases. The judge ordered the medical examiner to remove any mention of Taser as the cause of death in the disputed cases.
“It is dangerously close to intimidation,” Jeff Jentzen, then-president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said at the time of the Ohio ruling. “At this point, we adamantly reject the fact that people can be sued for medical opinions that they make.”
It’s nearly impossible to track Taser-related deaths at a national level. The Bureau of Justice Statistics does not track such deaths, in part because the subject is so controversial.
“[Conducted Energy Device] deaths are highly controversial…most medical examiners/coroners (ME/C) do not attribute the cause of death to CEDs,” a Bureau of Justice official said in a statement to Fusion.
“We would never want something like this to happen again.”
Seven months after the death of Israel Hernandez, the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Forensics Office issued a statement about the cause of death.
The document lists two causes of death: “sudden cardiac arrest” and a “conducted energy device discharge.”
It marked the first time that an Taser device was listed as the cause of death in Florida. Hernandez’s death was listed as accidental.
The full forensic report is still pending. Both the Miami Beach Police Department’s internal affairs unit and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement still have open investigations into the case. The officer who discharged the Taser was given one month’s paid leave, and is still working with the department’s administrative office. No other action has been taken against the department or the officers.
In a statement to Fusion, Taser said they would not speculate or comment on Mr. Hernandez’ cause of death.
“Taser has not been provided with the investigative medical or autopsy files for Mr. Hernandez and therefore cannot speculate or comment on Mr. Hernandez’ cause of death. However, Taser continues to stand by the independent peer reviewed medical studies that have shown that the Taser weapons are generally safe and effective.”
The Miami Beach Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the case.
The Hernandez family hopes the medical report is a step towards justice.
“I lost my soul brother, my soulmate, and I will never have him with me again; I will never find someone like him again,” his sister Offir told Fusion through tears. “Please, please help us get justice.”
Producer: Connie Fossi-Garcia
Director of Photography/Editor: Roderick Avila
Digital production by Daniel Rivero