A Taser representative demonstrating the company’s X26 model in England, 2007 (it is currently unclear which type of electroshock weapon was used in the Philadelphia incident).
Photo: Christopher Furlong (Getty Images)

A “Taser-style device” set a man’s clothing on fire on South Street in Philadelphia early Saturday morning after a security guard attempted to stun him, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported this weekend.

Details on the incident are limited, but a video posted to Twitter shows that the man’s pants caught fire after an electroshock weapon was fired outside Jim’s Steaks, a local cheesesteak restaurant. According to the Inquirer, the restaurant’s president, Ken Silver, said that it was also captured by security cameras.

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“We are currently reviewing the after-store-hours incident that occurred outside of Jim’s South St. early morning on Feb. 2, 2019,” Silver told the paper in a statement. “We are and will continue to cooperate fully with the Philadelphia Police Department as needed. We take the safety of our customers and employees very seriously and work dutifully to safeguard their well-being. In doing so we will continue operate with the highest standards as a local merchant, employer and neighbor.”

He did not clarify to the Inquirer whether the guards who used the taser were working for Jim’s Steaks, the paper wrote.

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The classic Taser works by firing two barbs with trailing wires that deliver an electrical shock. It and other models of electroshock weapon are capable of setting flammable material alight—the UK’s Home Office found in 2001 that the devices can set CS gas, a common ingredient in the tear gasses and aerosol sprays used by many police forces, on fire. The Home Office wrote that there is a “serious risk of ignition if the taser is fired at a target that has flammable solvent on their clothing. This risk will extend to all flammable environments, for instance a petrol station.”

Such incidents are not particularly common given how widespread Tasers and similar products are; in 2015, the Washington Post reported Tasers are used by over 17,000 U.S. police departments and fired at least 900 times a day. But fires have happened before. The New Statesman reported in 2017 that a number of deaths have been linked to “Taser-initiated combustion,” with Axon Enterprises (formerly known as Taser International) saying that nine deaths had been counted since 1993. Those deaths included times when police fired the devices on people who had been covered in gasoline, as well as 2012 incident near San Diego when a U.S. Border Patrol officer fired a Taser into a car with spilled gas inside, killing 24-year-old Alex Martin. The paper wrote that “news reports show uncounted other incidents” in which fires were initiated, but did not result in death.

Fires are also not the primary safety risk associated with Taser use. According to the Post report, dozens of people in 2015 (an average of roughly one per week) had died “in incidents in which police used Tasers,” including in some cases when officers used the “drive-stun” mode. That’s when the device is pressed against a suspect and discharged for what police forces call “pain compliance.” In 2017, Reuters identified more than 1,000 deaths that resulted after police used Taser products, though “typically in combination with other types of force.”

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Less information is available about the use of electroshock weapons by private citizens or security personnel, and many states impose few or no restriction on their purchase or use, which are among the reasons why Amnesty International opposes their sale for private use. According to the Inquirer report, the Philadelphia Police Department said they had not received a report about the incident on Saturday. However, according to CBS News, “detectives are looking into the incident.”

[Philadelphia Inquirer]