Law enforcement agencies across the nation -- including the Chula Vista Police Department -- are taking a fresh look at how and when they use Tasers to stop a crime suspect.
A Taser gun fires two small darts, which are attached to electrical wires that deliver a powerful shock.
The weapons are promoted as a non-lethal alternative to firearms and are used by police to immobilize a suspect without death or serious injury.
But a new report by Reuters documents at least 1,081 deaths following the use of police Tasers in the years since the supposedly non-lethal weapons came into wide use in the early 2000s.
According to the Reuters’ report, at least 49 people died last year after being shocked by a law enforcement Taser.
The Reuters report also identifies at least five agencies that are now reviewing their Taser policies in light of those deaths.
Those agencies include the Chula Vista Police Department, which confirmed it is investigating the death of 29-year-old Jason Watts who died last October after he was tasered in a confrontation with police outside a 7 Eleven.
Like many of the cases reviewed by Reuters, the Watts case involved police use of additional methods of force and restraint, including pepper spray.
Officers also had to physically restrain Watts while making that arrest.
CVPD Captain Phil Collum confirmed the investigation, explaining that “...as a matter of practice the Police Department routinely reviews all incidents involving the use of force. Our review covers a broad scope of potential topics such as department policies, relevant laws, equipment and training practices, and the specific circumstances surrounding each application of force.”
San Diego civil rights attorney Mike Marrinan said he is very familiar with the sometimes tragic and unexpected outcomes of Tasers.
Marrinan said police sometimes misuse the weapons when other, less-forceful means would suffice.
"If they’re going to use (Tasers) at all, they ought to be used as an alternative to deadly force in the fewest circumstances possible," Marrinan said.
He noted that the electrical shock from a taser dart is especially dangerous for suspects with heart conditions, or those who are high on drugs -- conditions that are often not obvious to police, for no fault of their own.
Marrinan said pregnant women are also at risk.
"The rule is, you never taser a pregnant woman. Well, sometimes the officer can't tell if a woman's pregnant or not," he said.
Attorney Doug Gilliland said he hopes this new information about Taser deaths and law enforcement reviews will lead to more training for police.
But Gilliland, who practices civil rights and criminal defense law in San Diego, also said the risk of Tasers has been known for years.
"The police are always doing independent reviews,” Gilliland said. “Something bad happens, there's always an independent review. The district attorney’s always reviewing things. But have things changed much in the past decade? Not with regard to Tasers."