Robert Kane: Tased and Confused

Robert Kane is a Criminology professor at Drexel University. Recently, Kane and his two study partners conducted an experiment to research a person’s ability to process information after being tased.  If a person has reduced cognitive function, they may not properly understand their Miranda rights, which has implications for private citizens, and for our legal system.

The information for this article was obtained during Kane’s presentation of his research at Drexel University on February 1, 2017.

In 2010, while Robert Kane had lunch with two of his colleagues (Michael D. White of Arizona State University and Justin Ready of Griffith University), he heard a remarkable story. One of Kane’s fellow criminologists recounted the recent conversation he’d had with a lawyer.

The lawyer had a client who claimed that, after being tased, “his mind was blown.” As he recovered, the police officers, who had read him his Miranda rights (a person’s right to stay silent until they have legal representation), began asking him questions. He claimed he did not answer voluntarily – he couldn’t stop himself.

For the rest of their meal, they designed a study to test the effects of the TASER discharge on a person’s ability to recall information.

The TASER, the most popular conductive energy devices (CEDs), are almost synonymous with police in the US. According to Professor Robert Kane, of the roughly eighteen thousand police departments in the US, seventeen thousand departments own and/or operate the TASER.

In the last 10 years, the TASER has been discharged nearly five million times with nearly  three million of those discharges being spent on suspects. The other roughly two million have mostly been spent on law enforcement officers. Up until very recently, several police departments across the country required law enforcement officials to endure a TASER discharge before being allowed to carry one.

It is difficult to determine how many deaths the TASER has caused.  One study, conducted by the makers of the TASER, estimates that, out of the nearly 3 million TASER discharges on civilians since 2010, 634 people have died from a TASER discharge.  Of the 634, 78% were on cocaine, and 54% had a pre-existing cardiovascular disease.

Prior to his study, Kane had not come across any research into a TASER discharge’s effect on cognition. As someone chiefly interested in issues of police accountability and transparency, he wondered if a person, recovering from the shock of the TASER discharge, would have the faculties necessary to understand their Miranda rights.

Kane and his colleagues designed a study in which healthy human volunteers from Arizona State University would all undergo a series of simple memory tests. Whether or not they were in a group that would be tased, they would all take the memory tests.

Western IRB approved the study based on its safety protocols. ASU asked Kane, White, and Ready to use students, who are healthy, and have health insurance.

The study was conducted over several weekends in a rented wing of an Arizona hospital, staffed with two doctors and two nurses. The study’s advisory board included the doctors who conducted medical research for TASER. They consulted with Kane, White, and Ready on the safest methods to administer the TASER’s discharge. The TASER was connected by alligator clips to a gym mat on the floor to prevent any accidents from volunteers falling down.  An off-duty police officer was in charge of discharging the TASER.

After a health and drug screening, students were divided into four groups:

  • One that would only take the memory tests, but not be tased,
  • One that would be tased,
  • One group who would physically exert themselves and not be tased,
  • One group who would first exert themselves physically before themselves being tased.  This last group simulated the physical stress people might already be under, before being tased by police.

Along with taking the same series of memory tests before and after being tased, volunteers came back to have their memories tested on the two following days, and then a week later. Kane and the other researchers wanted to get a sense of how long it took for people to fully regain their mental abilities after being tased.

According to Kane, a few students reported feeling “sad,” or “depleted,” after being tased.  “It affected them in ways we didn’t anticipate,” said Kane.

The group who exerted themselves before being tased showed the greatest declines in their mental state.  According to Kane, some of their results resembled those of 78-year-old men with a cognitive disorder, like Alzheimer’s disease.

While all three groups initially showed declines in their ability to recall information from the first to the second test, most people returned to their initial ability within the first hour.  Everyone recovered by the end of the week.

This research raises important questions about some yet unstudied side effects of being tased. If a group of students, in excellent health, show so serious of a mental decline, it remains to be understood how those who are less healthy will retain their mental faculties.  It is also unknown how being tased will effect people with mental disorders.

In his research, Kane has found that, compared to handcuffs, night sticks, and firearms, police officers receive far fewer hours of training with the TASER. “Two thirds of police departments require between 5 and 9 hours of TASER Training,” Kane said. “That’s not very much.” He said that in some instances, they are forcing situations in order to use their TASER.

Additionally, Kane has heard several anecdotes from lawyers whose clients were coerced into incriminating themselves or led into false confessions shortly after being tased.

For now, Kane’s recommendation is for police to wait an hour after a person is tased, before questioning them. “It doesn’t cost the police anything to wait,” he said. “If you’re going to err on the side of human rights, that’s what you should do.”


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