BANGOR, Maine — While attempting to subdue a 28-year-old man under the influence of bath salts on a September night in 2012, a Bangor police officer zapped him with a Taser.
The 50,000-volt shock from the device appeared to have little effect on Phillip McCue, who continued to struggle as up to five officers pinned him on the ground.
Police eventually handcuffed McCue and bound his legs. As they attempted to carry him to a nearby cruiser, he went limp and became unresponsive, according to police reports. A few minutes later, emergency medical personnel began performing CPR on him.
McCue died five days later in a local hospital without regaining consciousness.
McCue’s autopsy report specifically states that the use of the Taser, an electric shock device sold around the world, is not what killed him. The drugs he was using and abusing and the reaction they caused in his body, including cardiac arrest, led to his death, the medical examiner wrote.
But Michael McCue believes use of the Taser contributed to his son’s death, which is why he is suing the maker of the device along with the Bangor police, the city and emergency responders, seeking $6.65 million in compensation. The eight-count civil lawsuit filed March 18 in U.S. District Court claims the Taser company knows the electronic device it makes is dangerous, and therefore it is negligent and has a product liability.
Taser International Inc., based in Scottsdale, Ariz., received the court paperwork on March 28 informing it of the federal civil lawsuit, company spokesman Steve Tuttle said recently.
“While TASER does not comment on pending litigation involving our equipment, we continue to stand by the independent peer reviewed medical studies that have shown that the TASER weapons are generally safe and effective,” Tuttle said in a March 19 email, before the company had received notice of the lawsuit. “TASER technology has proven to reduce excessive use of force claims and has saved more than 121,000 lives from death or serious injury, dramatically reduced injuries to both officers and suspects while reducing excessive use of force litigation.”
McCue’s lawsuit raises safety questions about a device that is becoming more common in Maine as well as globally. More than 1 million Tasers have been sold in 107 countries, including to more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies around the world, according to the company. Tasers are being used or tested in around 130 agencies across the state, including by Maine State Police, 11 county sheriff’s departments, and large and small police departments such as Portland, Bangor and Holden, Tuttle said.
They also have been purchased by hospitals and colleges in Maine. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the country’s largest user of the electroshock devices, Tuttle said, adding the state of Maine Judicial Branch is looking at acquiring 50 Tasers for court security.
The devices, which cost $400 to more than $1,000 depending on the model, incapacitate people by sending electrical charges through their bodies that nullify muscular control. The pistol-type Taser uses compressed gas to fire two small probes attached to thin wires up to 20 feet. Once the probes penetrate the target’s skin or clothing, the high-voltage, low-amperage shock is delivered, the Taser website states. As long as the probes are attached and the battery is charged, repeat shocks may be delivered by pressing the trigger. If the probes miss, the device can still deliver a shock by touching it directly to the target.
Tasers can be used to control people who are armed, suicidal, suffering from mental illness or in crisis, which makes them a good nonlethal tool for law enforcement and others who handle volatile situations, Tuttle said.
“There is not a state where [sales] haven’t grown,” Tuttle said. “In New England, we’ve had some increases over the last couple years.”
Still, there are those who believe the devices are dangerous and potentially deadly.
Amnesty International, which is advocating tougher regulations regarding the use of Tasers, released data last year saying at least 500 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being shocked with Tasers either during their arrest or while in jail.
Amnesty International “believes the weapons should only be used as an alternative in situations where police would otherwise consider using firearms,” the global human rights organization states on its website.
Amnesty’s data are often misinterpreted, Tuttle said in a Friday email.
“It’s disingenuous for Amnesty to obfuscate 540 deaths related to TASER when medical examiners have cleared the TASER of causality or contribution in the vast majority of these tragic incidents,” the Taser spokesman said.
Taser cites several studies on its website touting the device’s safety, including one by the National Institute of Justice that states, “The risk of death in a [Taser]-related use-of-force incident is less than 0.25 percent, and it is reasonable to conclude that [Tasers] do not cause or contribute to death in the large majority of those cases.”
Even so, there have been a number of lawsuits against the Arizona company.
Widespread in Maine
The Bangor Police Department purchased its first Taser for $450 in 2000, one of the first law enforcement agencies in the state to do so, and issued it to the Special Response Team. By 2006, police in Millinocket and East Millinocket had joined Lewiston, Portland and Maine State Police in acquiring the device.
Bangor Police Chief Mark Hathaway declined to comment on his force’s use of Tasers because of the pending lawsuit, referring all questions to the department’s attorneys.
Bangor’s police force now has a dozen Tasers with eight available for use during each shift, according to attorney Josh Randlett. The devices have been used in the line of duty 63 times since 2008, with 11 discharges in 2008, 15 in 2009, eight in 2010, 14 in 2011, eight in 2012, five in 2013, and twice so far this year, according to data the lawyer provided to the BDN and information former police Chief Ron Gastia provided to city councilors in August 2009.
Incidents in 2013 during which Tasers were used by Bangor police include subduing a burglary suspect found inside a residence by a woman who returned home at 7 a.m., a transient who bolted from police and a man involved in a reported domestic violence incident who reportedly refused to submit to arrest.
The two other 2013 Taser incidents involved domestic violence, according to data provided by the department’s lawyers.
Portland police have around 50 Tasers, enough to cover the on-duty shifts in the state’s largest city, Assistant Chief Vern Malloch said recently.
Portland officers used their Tasers 20 times in 2012 and 27 times in 2013, he said.
“We wanted to give our officers another option to respond to difficult situations,” Malloch said. “The literature shows that citizen injuries and officer injuries are actually reduced [with the use of Tasers] — that is our experience as well.
“We’ve had no serious injuries with four years of experience,” the assistant chief said. “The officers’ use [of Tasers] has been very positive. They are a very effective tool.”
Ellsworth equipped all its officers with Tasers in 2011; and Hancock County Sheriff’s Office deputies were just getting the devices as the use of bath salts spread across Maine. People under the influence of bath salts often are difficult to control.
Smaller police departments have also used Tasers.
The Holden Police Department has two Tasers. One has been used, according to Sgt. Chris Greeley. The discharge was a result of a mutual-aid call in Orrington, where an intoxicated man held a knife against his own neck and wanted officers to shoot him.
A Rockland police officer who snuck up and used his Taser on an armed man attempting “suicide by cop” last year later learned the weapon the man held was a realistic looking toy. The officer was honored for his bravery in January.
Bangor police used Tasers on unruly people at both Eastern Maine Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital in 2008 and again at EMMC in 2009, Gastia told city councilors when EMMC requested a Taser be installed in the emergency room for use by police officers on guard duty. St. Joseph Hospital followed suit last year and paid for a Taser it donated to the Police Department for use in its emergency room.
The Taser at EMMC was used twice in 2011 and twice in 2013, the data provided by the Police Department’s lawyers show.
No Taser deaths in Maine
Despite McCue’s lawsuit and the concerns of Amnesty International, there is no record of a death in Maine caused by a Taser, according to Mark Belserene, spokesman for the state medical examiner’s office.
“I went through [computer records] the last five years … and nothing comes up,” he said. “I checked electroshock and get nothing.”
The Bangor Daily News filed a Freedom of Access request in 2013 for the Taser log associated with the McCue case. Taser logs include the date and time each model is fired, and for how long, as well as the temperature and battery life.
The single-line log entry states the discharge, which was administered by Officer Kim Donnell at 9:04 p.m. the night McCue was arrested, lasted five seconds.
“I warned McCue that I was going to taser him if he didn’t comply; McCue continued to resist,” Donnell wrote in her report on the incident. “I deployed my Taser X26 (serial #X00-182454) shooting the probes into the right side of his lower back and completing the circuit by drive stunning him on the left side of his lower back.
“During the Taser cycle, McCue provided me with his right arm behind his back. I took control of his right arm as the cycle completed,” she wrote.
Michael McCue provided the Bangor Daily News with a copy of the lawsuit demand package that was presented to the city in December, which includes a DVD of police cruiser video camera images taken the night McCue was arrested.
The 54-minute video from Sept. 12, 2012, is a combination of several police cruiser camera videos that have been edited, lightened for visibility and subtitled by McCue’s legal team, who were provided with the unedited videos under the state’s Freedom of Access Act. Bangor police denied a FOAA request from the Bangor Daily News seeking the raw video, citing family privacy.
In the edited video, Donnell can be seen partially kneeling behind McCue when she uses the Taser on him.
Phillip McCue died on Sept. 17, 2012, as a result of complications from overdosing on synthetic bath salts, his autopsy report states.
“The use by police of [electroshock device] (both barb deployment and direct stun use to his back) is not, in my opinion, a medically independent co-factor in this unfortunate gentleman’s case,” Dr. Michael Ferenc, a former Maine medical examiner who now lives in Phoenix, Ariz., concluded in McCue’s autopsy report.
“He is saying that the Taser hits are not a factor in the death,” Dr. Margaret Greenwald, Maine’s chief medical examiner, said shortly after McCue’s autopsy was released.