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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Answers in taser case are years away

October 30, 2007
GARY MASON, Globe and Mail

More than a week later, Canadians remain outraged over the death of Robert Dziekanski, the man who died at Vancouver International Airport after being zapped by taser-wielding RCMP officers.

Many Canadians don't understand why three Mounties needed to use their tasers to bring one agitated but unarmed man under control. Nor do they understand why the officers allegedly waited only 24 seconds before using their weapons on the 40-year-old Polish immigrant.

As is the case with all in-custody deaths, it will be months, maybe years, before the public gets any answers about the incident. The first opportunity will likely be at an inquest. But it took 19 months, remember, before an inquest was held into the death of Ian Bush, the 22-year-old mill worker from Houston, B.C., who was shot in the back of the head while in RCMP custody.

While it will be some time before we know who will be called as witnesses at the Dziekanski inquest, I'll bet one will be RCMP Corporal Greg Gillis, an expert on use of force with specific knowledge in the area of conducted energy weapons. Also known as tasers.

After talking to Cpl. Gillis for almost an hour late last week, I can already see how the force will defend using a taser on Mr. Dziekanski.

Although we did not talk specifically about the Dziekanski case because it's currently being investigated, it wasn't necessary. It was still relatively easy to figure out what the three officers involved in the incident are likely to say in their defence.

And it all starts with the belief that tasers are a safe and reliable weapon to bring violent, angry people under control.

"When you look at the best available medical information out there, there is nothing, nothing to support the link between the taser causing or putting people at increased risk [of death]," Cpl. Gillis told me.

"This is something that has been studied by medical experts around the world. It's been the study of an intense, wide-ranging review by the Home Office in Britain. We are constantly reviewing the most current medical literature out there on the subject."

Okay, so the RCMP believes it is on solid medical grounds, even though the taser's use has been associated with 17 deaths in Canada alone in the past 4½ years. The officers are still going to be asked why they didn't try alternative measures, like pepper spray, to immobilize Mr. Dziekanski.

Cpl. Gillis said pepper spray is an option, but an officer often has to make instantaneous calculations about its use. If we're talking about using pepper spray in an airport, for instance, the officers have to weigh the risk of cross-contaminating other parts of the building.

"If it gets picked up by the [ventilation] system, you suddenly have hundreds of people in the arrivals area that could be exposed to it," Cpl. Gillis said. "Then you've got a widespread panic on your hands and you're draining other resources because now you have to get the fire department to respond and deal with the situation."

As well, Cpl. Gillis said, pepper spray doesn't work on everybody.

Namely on people who have a high pain threshold, are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or are experiencing a mental-health crisis. Perhaps the RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport felt Mr. Dziekanski fell into one of these categories.

On top of that, there are often medical reasons to subdue the person as quickly as possible, Cpl. Gillis said. When the insulin level of a person with diabetes crashes, for example, he or she often exhibits violent behaviour. Negotiating before using force to subdue the person may do him more harm than good.

"What they need is medical attention immediately," Cpl. Gillis said. "Same with someone exhibiting symptoms of excited delirium or a psychotic outburst. The best thing is to bring them under control quickly and let the first responders [paramedics] start helping them."

And an officer faced with this situation has to make that evaluation quickly while, to some degree, making an educated guess about what's at the root of the person's problems.

"You're often talking about split-second decisions here," Cpl. Gillis said.

Still, 24 seconds seems like an awfully short time to assess a person's state of mind. But Cpl. Gillis said an officer is also trained to ascertain quickly whether a person is "oriented" enough to have any kind of conversation.

"And I'm not talking about a language barrier here. You can have a language barrier and still talk to someone," Cpl. Gillis said.

"But you can have a language barrier and have little chance of communicating with the person because they are not oriented for any number of reasons. In that case, talking is not going to help."

As I say, the RCMP will have months, if not a couple of years, to build its defence in this case. But Cpl. Gillis gives us a hint of what's coming.

The public will decide if it washes.

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