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Taser gun death is part of national pattern { July 29 2005 }

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July 29, 2005
Taser Gun Death Is Part of National Pattern

The death of a 35-year-old man soon after police officers shocked him with a Taser stun gun in a Queens station house this week is the latest in a growing number of cases nationwide that have provoked debate about the weapons, which are designed to incapacitate with a 50,000-volt charge.

More than 100 people have died in circumstances related to the use of Tasers, according to Amnesty International.

The organization, which has collected data since 2001 on the weapons' role in the deaths of people in custody, says the most common contributing factor in those deaths is drug use, followed by existing heart ailments. It has called for independent medical studies of the weapon's effects and has urged law enforcement officials to suspend its use until more is known.

The New York Police Department has said that officers were justified in using the weapon on the man, Terrence L. Thomas. The department is investigating the circumstances, officials said.

Mr. Thomas was arrested on suspicion of drug possession early Wednesday morning while driving with a friend in Queens. The police said that detectives found a bag of crack cocaine in the car and that Mr. Thomas might have tried to swallow the cocaine.

He fell ill in a holding cell in the 105th Precinct and resisted violently when medical workers came to take him to the hospital, the police said. Because Mr. Thomas needed medical attention and had become a danger to himself, officers' use of the Taser was correct, the police said.

The city medical examiner said it would be at least a week before they released the findings of an autopsy and investigation into the death.

One law enforcement official said preliminary findings of the autopsy suggested that Mr. Thomas died from cardiac arrest due to cocaine ingestion.

The man arrested with Mr. Thomas, Laqwan C. Jones, was arraigned yesterday in Queens Criminal Court on a charge of narcotics possession and possession of stolen property.

Mr. Thomas's family said yesterday that his death was a crime.

"They beat him up," said his mother, Dorothy Thomas, yesterday as she received relatives and others at her home in Hempstead Village, in Nassau County. "They killed him, and they've got to pay for it."

Paul J. Browne, the chief department spokesman, said Tasers had not been identified as the cause of any fatalities in New York. The department started using them in 1985 and has used them in 86 cases this year, he said.

Yesterday, the police offered more details of what they said happened inside the station house.

Mr. Thomas told a prisoner in his holding cell that he had swallowed cocaine, the police said.

When emergency medical technicians arrived, Mr. Thomas resisted and banged his head against the wall, the police said.

Officers decided to use the Taser at 3:45 a.m. when he was still refusing medical treatment and surrounded by four Fire Department medical workers and four Emergency Service Unit police officers, with the other prisoner moved out of the cell, the police said.

By 4:20 a.m., he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital after going into cardiac arrest in an ambulance.

The Taser fires darts attached to fine wires, which carry the electricity. Multiple shocks can be delivered by pulling the trigger. The Police Department did not say how many shocks were used, but they said Mr. Thomas continued to resist after he was shocked.

Sales of the weapon have dropped this year amid concerns about its safety. In a statement yesterday, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Taser International, said, "Until all the facts surrounding this tragic incident are known, it is inappropriate to jump to conclusions on the cause of Mr. Thomas's death."

Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a medical examiner in Texas, said he and his staff had started to track nationwide patterns of Taser use, which seemed to indicate that deaths usually occurred in people who are using cocaine, who have underlying cardiac problems, or who suffer from "excited delirium."

At her home yesterday, Mrs. Thomas said that when she went to the hospital to see her son's body, she was only allowed to see a Polaroid picture to identify him. His face looked bruised, she said, and swollen; his mouth was twisted.

"It was him," she said, "but it wasn't him."

Colin Moynihan contributed reporting for this article.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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