Project description

Shock Tactics is an unprecedented examination of the toll of deaths and litigation linked to Tasers, the most widely used “less lethal” weapon in the arsenal of U.S. police. The Reuters series redefined the debate over the stun guns’ safety, exposing the fatal consequences and mounting costs to taxpayers triggered by misuse of a weapon that’s supposed to spare lives. And the work had broad influence, prompting the largest conclave of U.S. police chiefs to weigh tighter rules on Taser use and eliciting a call for an investigation into human-rights abuses from the United Nations’ torture watchdog.

What makes this project innovative?

Reuters’ 18-month examination identified more than 1,000 incidents across the U.S. in which people died after being stunned by police. The figure was 40% higher than any previous estimates, even as we used much stricter methodology for attributing harm to Tasers. We also identified and analyzed more than 440 wrongful death lawsuits filed against police involving such fatalities, showing how the public is paying the bill as the manufacturer protects itself from liability with an expanding list of product warnings.
Taser International contends its weapons are almost never to blame when someone dies after being stunned. It insists the stun guns have played a role in no more than two-dozen deaths – and never directly caused a fatality.

Reuters proved these assertions wrong. We conducted an exhaustive effort to obtain autopsy findings in every Taser-involved death across America. In all, the news agency collected cause-of-death reports for more than 700 fatalities. In more than 150 of them, we found, the Taser was identified by medical examiners as a cause of death or a contributing factor.

We also launched a unique review of Taser-involved deaths behind bars, documenting 104 cases nationwide and describing how local jailers had used the weapons as tools of torture. Our story and video package, including disturbing footage of handcuffed inmates being shocked, prompted the United Nations’ two leading experts on torture to call for an immediate investigation into the abuses we exposed.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

Beyond spurring the calls for investigations by U.N. and Ohio officials, our reporting has reshaped the discussion on Taser use among the most important audience of all: police brass. At a national police chiefs’ forum arranged by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Reuters video report from the series was broadcast to a full room, triggering an hour-long discussion on Tasers. The organization, which advises U.S. police departments on safety issues, sent the entire Reuters series to all 2,600 members.

Source and methodology

We conceived the project in 2015, during the summer of protests over police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore and beyond. The public wanted safer policing methods. We pursued a fundamental question: How safe are Tasers?

We pulled tens of thousands of case files, built a unique database from them, and heard from hundreds of people on the front lines of Taser use: families, police, medical examiners and the company itself.

Our reporting showed that, from city to city, the ubiquitous stun guns have been misused as the manufacturer added layers of safety warnings but many police departments failed to comply. No agency regulates Tasers, even as 90 percent of U.S. police agencies use them.

The findings were built on our bedrock of original data, gathered by a team of a dozen reporters through more than 1,000 public records requests in all 50 states and thousands more records in legal databases. The meticulous research allowed us to create and publish a U.S. map of the 1,000+ cases of people who died after being shocked by a Taser, including race and other demographic details on nearly every victim. Nationwide, citizens can explore local cases included in our interactive map and original database, which we continue to update.

Technologies Used

We built their own database using Google Sheets and SQL Server for analysis.

Project members

Jason Szep, Peter Eisler, Tim Reid, Lisa Girion, Grant Smith, Linda So, M.B. Pell and Charles Levinson

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