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Monday, November 15, 2004

Taser Stun Guns the Target Of Growing Canadian Concern As Use Spreads

October 15, 2004

OTTAWA (CP) -- Canada's public safety minister has joined human-rights groups and some police officers urging a closer look at Taser stun guns. Abuse complaints about the way police use the weapons are mounting as the painful electric-shock devices become standard tools for law enforcement across Canada and the United States.

Many police hail the Taser for its potential to cut rates of injury and death during arrests. Critics say there's a dark side to this emerging alternative to deadly force.

Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan says more should be known about a weapon that's being snapped up by police and correctional services.

"Whenever the policing community is using a tool, one wants to make sure that that tool is safe, that the people who are using it are well-trained and know what they're doing, and that there's no unnecessary infliction of harm on anyone,'' she said in an interview.

Jim Cessford, chief of the Delta, B.C., police force, said recent incidents in which people who were high on drugs died after being hit with a Taser have raised some new questions. "I think it's time that we need to have another look and see what's changed,'' said Cessford, who is helping oversee a national study of Taser use.

Another Canadian review has already called for changes.

Dirk Ryneveld, British Columbia's police complaints commissioner, recommended standard, provincewide Taser training for B.C. in an interim report released in September.

The report was ordered after Robert Bagnell of Vancouver became the fifth of six Canadians to die following a jolt from a Taser.

Ryneveld also called for mandatory reports whenever the weapons, which resemble snub-nosed hand guns, are used.

There are several areas in which "the training certainly could be standardized'' across police forces, said RCMP Const. Gregg Gillis, who teaches Mounties to use Tasers.

McLellan indicated her department is prepared to step in to work with the provinces and police on national standards for Taser use if they are needed. "I think that there may be a role (for the federal government),'' she said.

Coroners' inquests to be held over the next year will probe what role, if any, stun guns played in four B.C. deaths and two in Ontario _ all of them drug-related. The first, which will examine the death of Clay Alvin Willey, begins Monday in Prince George, B.C.

Tasers cause temporary loss of muscle control with a 50,000-volt zap that knocks most suspects off their feet. Often no lasting physical trace is left.

There is no national means of monitoring how and when the weapons are used.

At issue is the potential for police to abuse an otherwise valuable tool, wielding it against unarmed suspects who simply ignore commands or passively resist arrest.

There are also troubling questions about whether stun guns should be used against suspects whose hearts are overtaxed by drug use or a form of psychosis known as "excited delirium.''

Amnesty International says the contentious devices should be suspended pending more independent research.

As many as 60 people have died in the United States after being zapped, but Taser International stresses that not a single death has been directly or primarily blamed on its product.

"Our studies currently show the technology is safe,'' said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for the Arizona-based company. "It's a very humane system to stop somebody, without having to cause blunt trauma.''

The firm argues the device, which sells for $400 US and up depending on the model, has saved thousands of lives and has helped police forces reduce injuries to officers.

Even the most ardent critics say the Taser, introduced to Canadian policing by the Victoria force five years ago, has a role to play in life-threatening situations. (The name stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, after a storybook that inspired its inventor.)

"If you have a police officer being attacked by somebody with a knife, then the Tasers _ no matter what the risks are _ they're far less than shooting the guy,'' says Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel. "But some officers are using them like they're toys. And some are even using them . . . there's no other way to describe it other than torture.''

A Taser fires for up to five seconds and can be shot repeatedly. Two barbs attached to copper wires can connect from up to six metres away and will shock even through thick layers of clothing. A "touch stun'' can be used at close range, which one police trainer likened to "leaning against a hot stove.''

Taser International says its goal is to provide "non-injurious solutions to violent confrontation by developing products that enable law enforcement officers to protect themselves without causing injury or death to another human being.''

Rahim Hadani says that's not what happened the night his buddy died.

Roman Andreichikov, a buff personal trainer coming off a crack cocaine binge, was calm when four city police officers arrived at his Vancouver apartment on May 1, Hadani says. "He was just sitting on the couch, rocking back and forth.''

Hadani had called for paramedics because Andreichikov, paranoid and mumbling to himself, had been acting suicidal. Police came first to secure the scene. They entered the apartment with a Taser stun gun already drawn and aimed, Hadani says.

Andreichikov wasn't hurting himself or anyone else, he said. "I wouldn't have been in there if it wasn't a safe place to be.''

Andreichikov, 25, followed orders when the officers told him to lay face-down on the floor, his friend recalled.

"They kept saying: `Shoot him! Shoot him!' ''

When he suddenly flipped over to see what was going on, police stunned Andreichikov with a close-range shot to his bare chest, Hadani said.

"He was screaming because it was hurting so much.''

As the officers pounced to handcuff him, Andreichikov turned his head toward Hadani and said: "I can't breathe.'' He never regained consciousness.

A coroner's inquest into the death is pending.

The Vancouver Police Department did not respond to interview requests. But Vancouver Police Chief Jamie Graham has previously called the Taser a valuable tool, saying he's satisfied it is safe.

Less than two months after the Andreichikov incident, Robert Bagnell died June 23 in a cheap rooming hotel down the street. He stopped breathing soon after being Tasered in the throes of what police said was cocaine-induced psychosis.

Vancouver police waited a month to publicly reveal that Bagnell, 44, had been hit with a stun gun. By that time, they had a toxicology report that said the longtime drug addict had potentially lethal amounts of cocaine in his system.

Three coroners told The Canadian Press that there is in fact no standard minimum level beyond which cocaine intoxication is lethal. Tolerance of the drug varies too much from person to person, said Terry Smith, B.C.'s chief coroner.

Almost two months after Bagnell's death, police issued another statement saying a fire in the building had forced them to act quickly when the deranged man refused to leave.

Bagnell's neighbour and friend, Jack Ivers, scoffed at the explanation.

"It was a minor fire'' that was quickly doused on the main floor with little damage, he said. Bagnell and the police were four floors up.

Ivers, 64, says his friend needed medical help _ not a 50,000-volt shock.

"What irritates me is it had just happened a couple months previous to that down the street,'' he said, referring to Andreichikov's death. "They (the police) know the effect.''

Some 2,400 Tasers are now in the hands of more than 50 police and correctional services across Canada. A small number will be introduced into two maximum-security prisons by the end of 2005, says the Correctional Service of Canada.

It's difficult to know how often the weapons are used across Canada. Only fragmentary statistics have been made public.

"Federally we don't have anything right now,'' said Steve Palmer, executive director of the Canadian Police Research Centre.

Internal RCMP statistics show Tasers have figured in about 400 incidents nationwide since they were first used in a field trial in Western Canada as part of an evaluation initiated in 2000, said Gillis.

Privacy laws have prevented the Mounties from widely circulating data about those incidents, he noted.

There is no consensus among police forces about when the Taser should be used.

"In different jurisdictions, people say Tasers are the last step prior to lethal force,'' says Palmer. "In others, they can be used with broader officer discretion.''

The research centre, a partnership of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the RCMP and the National Research Council, is leading a comprehensive review of Taser literature, field reports and other international data. The chiefs' association commissioned the study in August to probe continuing concerns. A final report is not expected for up to two years.

A clearer sense of how the Taser should best be used, as well as recommendations for standardized training, could emerge from the process, indicated the Delta police force's Cessford, who is also chairman of the police research centre's advisory board.

Training currently varies among police across Canada, says Gillis of the RCMP. Mounties spend from eight to 10 hours learning about how the device works - including three hours of hands-on use - as well as studying medical and tactical issues.

That's more than double the amount of time some departments allot for training, Gillis said.

He welcomed the interim recommendations from the B.C. complaints commissioner. The guidance will be valuable if it spurs forces to adopt higher, more consistent standards, he said.

"That's good . . . if it causes us all to take our various training packages out, place them on the table and open them up to being critiqued by everybody else, so that we can go back with a better product at the end of the day.''

The Taser is only meant for use against suspects who assault police or someone else, or who try to break away during an arrest, says Edmonton Police Const. Shawna Goodkey, a use-of-force specialist who trains officers to handle the stun guns.

"We don't use it on people that are co-operative, obviously,'' she said. "Or even people that just are sitting there and saying: `You know what? I'm not going to go with you.' ''

"We're looking at deploying it only on someone that is an active resister.''

Tasers have saved lives in Edmonton at least four times in the last four years but the force has not gathered related statistics, she said.

"It's definitely a worthwhile tool.''

New Democrat MP Libby Davies, whose East Vancouver riding includes the drug-plagued Downtown Eastside area where Andreichikov and Bagnell died, is not convinced.

She says it's time for the federal government to step in where police forces have failed to monitor Tasers.

"I think we need to have a national perspective on the use of these weapons,'' Davies said.

"Some of the situations that I've read about, I've found them really quite disturbing.''

McLellan says it's too soon to draw conclusions about what appears to be a valuable tool.

"I think while it is reasonable to have some concerns, and we need to learn more about whether those concerns are valid,'' she said, "I also think that one should not overreact and immediately suggest that somehow this is not a tool that the police should have available.''

McLellan expects the RCMP and other police forces to take the lead and determine whether current training practices are appropriate before politicians consider action.

As with many tools, knowledge comes from experience with them, she said.

"We learn both their strengths and their weaknesses and we try to deal with the weaknesses.''

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