WASHINGTON -- The number of people in the United States who have died after being shocked by police stun guns has grown rapidly, Amnesty International says in a report that catalogs 156 in the past five years.
Deaths after the use of Taser stun guns have risen from three in 2001 to 61 last year, the international human rights group said. Fourteen people have died this year, it said, citing police and autopsy reports as well as news accounts.
The rise in deaths accompanies a marked increase in the number of US law enforcement agencies employing devices made by Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz. About 1,000 of the nation's 18,000 police agencies used them in 2001; more than 7,000 departments had them last year, according to a government study.
Police had used Tasers more than 70,000 times as of last year, Congress's Government Accountability Office said.
Amnesty urged police departments to suspend their use pending more study. The group said there has been insufficient independent research on safety issues, an assertion the company disputes.
Taser did not immediately comment on the report. But it has called similar studies flawed because they link deaths to Taser use when there has been no such official conclusion. To the contrary, Taser has said that more than 9,000 lives have been saved because police officers have been able to use stun guns instead of bullets. Tasers deliver a 50,000-volt jolt through two barbed darts that can penetrate clothing.
The Amnesty report is the latest study that raises concerns that Taser use -- intended as a nonlethal alternative to a gun -- can be fatal in certain circumstances, most often when the victim is using illegal drugs.
Police officers should use Tasers ''only in circumstances where potentially lethal force is justified," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. Schulz acknowledged that stun guns could be effective in a police arsenal, preferable in some cases to a nightstick or a gun.
Many of those who died were high on drugs, mentally ill, or otherwise agitated. Many deaths in the past year occurred after victims were hit by Tasers at least three times and, in some cases, for prolonged periods, the report said.
In seven cases medical examiners or coroners determined that Taser use was a cause of death.
In 16 other cases, authorities ruled that Taser use was a contributing factor in the death. In the bulk of the cases, victims died or lost consciousness soon after being shocked, but autopsies most often determined that illegal drugs were responsible or no cause of death was ascribed. Schulz said all 156 cases should be the subject of independent medical research.
Some police agencies have tightened their rules on stun-gun use following Taser-related deaths.
Taser said it has sold more than 115,000 devices to individuals since 1994. Stun guns are legal in 43 states, the company's website says. They are illegal in Massachusetts, the company said.