Do Stun Guns Cause Brain Injuries?

I’m not sure to what degree this counts as history of psychology, but it stuck me as an important psychology-related finding none the less. From a short article in the latest issue of the APA’s Monitor on Psychology (June, 2008, p. 12):

In a study of 62 police officers, researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medical Science in Chicago and the University of Illinois found that police officers who had been “tased” during training drills fared worse than a control group in attention, processing speed, and memory…. “It is a provocative finding because the kinds of dificulties that were observed… are the same kinds of changes we see in people who have suffered electrical shocks from accidents involving domestic power sources,” [co-author Neil] Pliskin says.

I suppose the exact same questions might be asked about electro-convulsive therapy, about which there has been heated debate concerning its cognitive side-effects for decades (and there is the connection with history of psychology, if you still yearned for one). If psychiatry was ultimately motivated to turn down the power with respect to ECT in order to avoid dramatic side-effects, perhaps the same considerations should go into an evaluation of the safety of stun guns as well.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

4 thoughts on “Do Stun Guns Cause Brain Injuries?

  1. Could it be that officers who end up getting tased were already a little, um, less sharp than those who don’t volunteer or get singled out?

  2. If police officers are supposedly “less sharp” to you than please explain to me why we would be using taser guns on the general public if the point of a police officers job is to serve and protect, not harm or injure?

  3. There seem to be two relatively independent points here. (1) Did the officers who were tased volunteer to do so and, if so. might they have been less well cognitively endowed at the outset than their colleagues who did not volunteer. Although perhaps snarkily phrased, the comment by “a reader” does raise the legitimate question of whether the cognitive impairments that were found after the tasing were present beforehand. This is why good scientific research depends on measurements before and after treatment, random assignment to groups, good controls, etc. Nevertheless, the fact that the cognitive damage discovered is consistent with that seen in domestic electrocutions leads one to believe that these are not just general cognitive deficiencies that led volunteers to make bad choices. More research is required to firmly determine a causal link however. (2) The second question, raised by Melissa, is about why the police (as an institution) would decide use tasers if they were harmful. I see no reason to believe that police departments don’t sometimes make mistakes just like any other institution. They have been told by Taser International that these weapons are safe, and Taser International has been quite aggressive in threatening legal action against anyone (even independent scientific researchers) who publicly claim otherwise. Re-enforcing this possible mistake on their part is the belief that the police themselves are better protected if they can use tasers where previously they would have had to engage with a resistant suspect physically (i.e. hand-to-hand). Like most of us, police will act in their own best interest and rationalize their actions when challenged. They are not saints, after all, they are just people doing a hard, sometimes hazardous job. But, by the same token, other civil institutions need to ensure that the police are not inflicting undue risk on members of the (innocent until proven guilty) public.

    The fact of the matter is that tasers were introduced to serve as a less lethal alternative to guns, and they are. The problem is that police now regularly use tasers in situations in which they never would have used guns, but would have used hand-to-hand force. It appears that tasers are more dangerous (for the suspect) than hand-to-hand force, but somewhat safer for the police (who no longer need to risk wrestling matches to arrest resistant suspects). The question is whether this is a shift in risks that we — the public who the police are supposed to be serving — are willing to accept.

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