Father wants answers in son's death following Taser jolt

Mark Backlund was en route to get his parents at the airport when he was "uncooperative" after an accident.

Star Tribune | January 17, 2008
By Jim Adams and Emily Johns

Authorities are investigating the death of a 29-year-old Fridley man shot with a Taser by state troopers, who said he had become "uncooperative'' after a rush-hour crash Tuesday evening.

The victim was identified by his father as Mark C. Backlund. Gordon Backlund said his son was on his way to pick up his parents at the airport after they had taken a short trip to Florida.

According to the State Patrol, he was involved in a rush-hour crash on Interstate Hwy. 694 near Silver Lake Road in New Brighton. The State Patrol said troopers shot him with the Taser because he was uncooperative. He was breathing but unconscious when paramedics arrived, according to Allina Medical Transportation spokesman Tim Burke but was pronounced dead at Unity Hospital in Fridley.

Gordon Backlund said he was told his son's heart stopped. A 1996 graduate of Fridley High School, he had no heart conditions, his father said.

"We're looking for what really happened," said Backlund, who said his son's car was the only one involved in the crash. He described his son as caring and loyal, with a good sense of humor. "And it is just going to take time to figure this out."

Police have praised the Taser -- which sends an electric current -- for its ability to bring a quick end to standoffs with violent suspects. But related fatalities after their use have made it controversial.

Troopers put on leave Lt. Mark Peterson of the State Patrol wouldn't describe the uncooperative behavior. Five troopers at the scene were placed on routine administrative leave while the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigates.

According to Chris Krueger, communications director for the Department of Public Safety, the Anoka County Medical Examiner could complete the autopsy as soon as today.

It is the State Patrol's first Taser-related death since troopers started carrying the weapons about a year and a half ago, Peterson said.

In Minnesota, 480 law enforcement agencies use Tasers now, compared with 219 in 2004, according to Taser International in Scottsdale, Ariz. In Minneapolis, Taser use is left to an officer's discretion, according to police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia.

He said it is used most frequently to quickly control a situation when an officer is struggling with someone. Injuries to officers struggling with offenders have decreased considerably since the department started using Tasers in 2001.

"It takes the fight of out them," Garcia said.

He said no one in Minneapolis has died directly from a Taser. The Hennepin County medical examiner found a Minneapolis man shot with a Taser died from cocaine abuse, heart disease and emphysema in 2003. The next year, another Minneapolis man with heart disease and hypertension died from a heart attack after he was shot with a Taser.

Over 290 deaths nationwide

In the United States, more than 290 people have died since June 2001 after being struck by police Tasers, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. It said in October that only 25 of the 290 were armed, and none had firearms.

The group has called for a moratorium on Taser use until more research is done.

"We believe that they should be used as an alternative to lethal force," said Dori Dinsmore, the group's Midwest director, "not as a tool to ensure routine compliance."

A 2004 study from the group shows many of those who died had underlying health problems such as heart conditions or mental illness or were under the influence of drugs. Many also were subjected to repeated or prolonged shocks.

However, Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle said of the 290 deaths that "in the vast majority of these tragic cases medical examiners have ruled that the Taser was not the cause of death." He said Taser use was listed as contributing factor in six cases since 1998.

He said studies cited in trials supported the company, which has not lost any of 61 product liability cases settled so far.
"Medical documentation strongly supports that the Tasers are a safer use of force alternative compared to hands on, punches, chemical sprays, batons and canine bites," Tuttle said.

A Taser sends a current that interrupts muscle control.  The Taser fires two barbs up to 35 feet on a wire. The barbs carry electrical  current which disables the person  for several seconds.  A person hit with both barbs typically topples to the ground.

Backlund is survived by his parents, Gordon and Linda Backlund of Fridley, his sister Melanie Backlund Moe, and his 2-year-old son, Nathaniel.

"We're in shock," Gordon Backlund said. "It's very hard to lose a child."

Late Wednesday, BCA Superintendent Tim O'Malley said: "This is a traumatic event for a lot of people. Someone has died and in fairness to that person, the troopers, family members and others who may have been affected, we need to make sure that we're accurate and thorough.''