Rod McCullom is a Chicago-based science journalist and reports the “Convictions” column for Undark. His work has been published by Undark, Scientific American, Nature, The Atlantic, and The Nation, among other publications. This article originally featured in Undark.
The photographs are graphic and disturbing: 16-year-old Jahmel Leach sits in a hospital bed, his face swollen, a deep, bloody laceration stretching across his right cheek. Taken last June, the pictures show the Bronx teenager shortly after he was arrested by New York City Police Department officers during the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd.
According to Leach’s family and attorney, the boy was injured after he was shot three times by a Taser in his head, leg, and shoulder. The darts cut into his flesh, and he was subsequently beaten by officers, who injured his jaw and made him almost lose his teeth, the family says. Leach maintains he was walking by a protest and unfairly targeted. The NYPD says the teen was setting garbage ablaze and released surveillance video that they claim proves their point.
The incident raises more questions than answers about how Tasers are used on children and teens.
An estimated 400,000 law enforcement officers in the US reportedly carry these “energy weapons” manufactured by Axon Enterprise, the Arizona-based company formerly known as Taser International. Introduced in 1993, Tasers were initially marketed as “non-lethal” but are now marketed as a “less lethal” alternative to firearms. The devices and sales of related software helped drive the company’s total revenue to $226 million in 2020.
“Independent studies have concluded that the use of Taser energy weapons carries a risk as low as or lower than most use of force alternatives,” said an Axon spokesperson in an emailed statement, “and carries a significantly lower risk of injury than physical force.”
Yet there is a surprising lack of data around how children and teens are affected by Taser exposure. While some studies suggest that adolescents are not at higher risk than adults, the literature is decidedly limited, and some researchers want to know more. Further, there is little data on when, where, and how many youths are exposed, with regulations and data collection varying by state. What little data do exist suggest that African American children, teenagers, and youths are overrepresented among young people who are shocked by Tasers.
Arizona State University criminologist Michael White has extensively researched police use of force and told me he is troubled by the data gaps. “It’s an area where we need a lot more work,” he says.
The Taser is a small handheld electroshock weapon that temporarily incapacitates a person. When the trigger is depressed, a blast of compressed nitrogen propels two barbed electrodes connected to the device by insulated copper wires. The electrodes attach to a person’s body, usually delivering about 1,200 to 1,400 volts of electricity.
Tasers target the nerves that control the skeletal muscles, temporarily disabling the neuromuscular system, says Raphael Lee, a surgeon and professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering who researches traumatic injuries at the molecular level. These nerves are the longest cells in the body, allowing them to rapidly communicate and coordinate complex movements.
The Taser cycle generally lasts for five seconds in models used by law enforcement. But researchers don’t know whether there are lingering effects, says Lee.
It takes only a small percentage of nerves to trigger a reaction across the entire neuromuscular system, the physician-scientist told me. To measure for long-term effects, researchers would want to identify any nerves that had been directly stimulated by the Taser. This is a difficult and often time-sensitive task. Still, “we are investigating,” says Lee, who was the first surgeon to have been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.
Questions surrounding the weapons’ safety go back decades. Since the early 2000s, at least 1,000 Americans have died after being shocked by Tasers while under arrest or in jails or prisons, according to an exhaustive 2017 investigation by Reuters. The news agency’s reporters found that many of the casualties were vulnerable individuals. For example, a quarter of the people who died were suffering from mental health or neurological disorders. According to the Reuters report, it was impossible to know precisely what role the Taser played in a given individual’s death in many instances. Studies have found that the shocks can lead to arrhythmia and cardiac arrest. Stroke and respiratory distress have also been reported.
Axon placed more restrictive product warnings on Tasers in 2010, following a wave of wrongful death lawsuits. Today, the company warns that “using an energy weapon on certain populations could increase the risk of death of serious injury. These higher risk populations include those who are pregnant, infirm, elderly, or have a low body-mass index, such as a small child.”
In my interviews with scientists and policy experts, each told me that they wanted a better understanding of how Taser exposure affects the physical and cognitive development of children and teenagers. But there is little research available, and that isn’t likely to change for a very simple reason: They are juveniles.
Juveniles generally are not able to give informed consent, explains Glenn Ellis, a visiting scholar at Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care and bioethics fellow at Harvard Medical School. Ellis says he couldn’t imagine a scientific review board would approve clinical trials involving juveniles exposed to electroshocks for weapons research.
“Would it be even ethical to even get approval for a study like this?” Ellis asks. “The answer is no.”
Researchers have, however, designed experiments to test how college students—some as young as 18 and 19 years old—respond when hit by a Taser. In a study of 142 Arizona State University students, White and his co-author, Drexel University professor Robert Kane, found that students who had been struck by a Taser showed a decline in cognitive functioning that lasted about an hour. Most notably affected were auditory recall—remembering information presented orally—and short-term memory. This is believed to be among the first published data around the cognitive impact of Taser exposure.
As a result of these findings, “we made a recommendation that in cases where police officers tased a suspect, they should not question a subject for an hour unless there are exigent circumstances,” White says. He also notes that the findings might be more pronounced among vulnerable populations and children.
Few published data are available for evaluating the extent of the physical injuries experienced by adolescents like Jahmel Leach who have been struck by Tasers. A 2012 study conducted by an emergency medicine team based at Wake Forest University found adolescents were “not at a substantially higher risk than adults” for serious injuries after being shocked with Tasers by law enforcement officers. But the dataset from 10 law enforcement agencies was limited—only 100 adolescents out of about 2,000 Taser incidents in total.
“There are no national standards and no national protocols for how Tasers should be deployed,” Kane tells me. Some police departments classify Taser use as a “pain compliance” technique, he says, referring to pain-inducing techniques designed to force an uncooperative person to comply with an officer’s instructions. “That’s crazy,” he adds, because it “means you can tase an eight- or 12-year-old kid. You don’t know what that is going to do to their long-term neural development.”
Some police departments have explicitly allowed officers to use Tasers against children. The Cincinnati Police Department, for example, previously allowed officers to use Tasers on individuals from ages seven to 70. The department was criticized in 2018 after an officer used a Taser on an 11-year-old African-American girl accused of shoplifting. The policy was changed in January 2019 and now instructs officers to avoid using the weapons on young children.
Other departmental guidelines are vague regarding age. The Chicago Police Department issued an eight-page set of guidelines on Taser use in February 2020, instructing officers to consider a “subject’s apparent age.” The one-paragraph guidance on school use says that school resource officers—law enforcement officers responsible for safety inside schools—should only use Tasers against students when their “apparent age, size, and threat” create “immediate” necessity.
There is no published data on the number of school resource officers equipped with Tasers. In emailed responses to my questions, an Axon spokesperson said the company does not possess this data, nor does it collect information on the number of students shocked by Tasers at schools. Similarly, the National Association of School Resource Officers does not collect this data and is not aware of any “such metrics available,” a spokesperson told me.
At least 84 students had Tasers used on them by school resource and police officers between September 2011 and August 2016, according to The Hechinger Report, a digital publication that reports on “innovation and inequality in education.” But that number was described as “a gross underestimation” because it only accounts for published news reports when “not every incident is reported, and no state or federal organization track how often children are zapped at schools.”
Individual police departments generally are not willing to share their use-of-force data, Kane tells me. I learned this quickly when trying to determine how many times Chicago school resource officers used Tasers on students in recent years. I asked two Chicago Public Schools officials in emails. One of them referred me to the Chicago Police Department. I emailed the police department, and, in turn, was referred to the schools.
Nationwide, the published reports of Tasers being used on teenagers are often disturbing, excessively violent, and, at least anecdotally, the teens are disproportionately African American. Six Atlanta police officers were charged after bodycam footage was released of their brutal arrest and use of Tasers on two Black college students, for example. And, more recently, Chicago’s city council settled a lawsuit filed by the parents of a 16-year-old female African American special needs student who was dragged down a staircase and shocked with a Taser by school officers.
Connecticut is the only state that publishes demographic data for police Taser deployment. The reported data show that Black juveniles are “over-represented among tasings,” says Emma Roche, a University of California, Los Angeles law student and recent University of Colorado graduate, whose senior honors thesis is one of the few published datasets on this issue. Connecticut officers used Tasers on 542 people in 2016. Of those, 37 were minors aged seven to 17 years. Three-fifths of all youth were Black and all eight of the children under 16 years were Black, says Roche. “That was extremely alarming to see.”
White, Kane, and Bocar Ba, a University of California, Irvine economist who also researches police accountability and Taser use, suggest officers should be trained to de-escalate conflicts with youth, as opposed to using Tasers. The researchers agree that data should be published to show how many and how often youth are shocked with the weapons by police and school resource officers.
The National Association of School Resource Officers already conducts special trainings that emphasize de-escalation tactics. “I wish that we trained every SRO in the country,” says Mo Canady, a 25-year veteran police and school resource officer, and the executive director of the Alabama-based organization. Canady says that de-escalation techniques—such as adopting a less-threatening tone and giving students more respect in front of their peers—are stressed throughout the courses, along with training on “special needs students [and] adolescent mental health issues.”
Meanwhile, in New York City the Bronx district attorney’s office has dropped the charges against Jahmel Leach. The teen’s family has filed a lawsuit against the NYPD.