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Can Police Tasers Temporarily Cause ‘Dementia’?

Thu, 02/11/2016 - 12:21pm
Sean Allocca, Editor

(Shutterstock)We know what a 50,000-volt shock from a stun gun will do to a person’s body, but what happens to the brain?

New, first-of-its-kind research, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, analyzed the effects of electric shock on a person’s cognitive function with some pretty interesting findings: the shock from a Taser can impair a person’s ability to remember and process information for up to an hour.

Some 140 participants completed a battery of cognitive tests at a preliminary screening stage, immediately before and after the shock, an hour later, and after one week. The test found that participants showed the greatest variability on the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test, which quantifies a person’s ability to learn new information and then recall that information, according to the study. Some participants showed short-term drops in cognitive functioning, “comparable to dementia.”

Researchers said these new findings may have larger implications on due process, especially concerning Miranda Rights.

"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,” said Dr. Robert J. Kane, professor at Drexel College and member of the research team. “[They] may be more likely to waive their Miranda rights directly after Taser exposure or to give inaccurate information to investigators.”

The study was conducted by randomly splitting the participants into four groups. A control group of 37 participants had no electric shock; 32 people hit a punching bag, which simulated the heightened physical state common in tense police encounters; 35 received five-second shocks; and, 38 hit a punching bag and received five-second shocks.

"Tasers are a great alternative to deadly force,” Kane said. “When used in lieu of firearms, Tasers can save lives. But using a Taser is not without risk.”

Researchers admit that participants in the study were “high-functioning, healthy young people” and may not be completely representative of the population generally Tased by police that may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or in a state of great emotional stress.

Researchers suggest having a public dialogue about stun-gun best practices, and how authorities can ensure those who are stunned are coherent enough to give “knowing and valid” answers to police before they are questioned.

“These decisions can have profound impact on an eventual judicial finding of guilt or innocence," Kane said.

Stun guns are now used in 17,000 police departments, according to the release.

The study, "TASER Exposure and Cognitive Impairment: Implications for Valid Miranda Waivers and the Timing of Police Custodial Interrogations," was published this month in the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

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