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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tasers and the killing of Quilem Registre

October 24, 2007
Dan Delmar, The Suburban (St. Laurent, Quebec)

Two deaths in the past week at the hands of Canadian police forces are highlighting the dangers of taser use.

Quilem Registre, 38, died at Sacré-Coeur Hospital early Thursday after being electrocuted as many as six times by Montreal police officers who were trying to subdue him. He was stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence after smashing into three parked cars in St. Michel. A spokesperson for the coroner’s office later confirmed Registre had cocaine in his system.

“It’s as if he was hit by lightning,” a member of the Registre family told the press last week.

Sixteen people have died after being tasered in Canada since 2003; more than 150 in the U.S. since 2001. A Polish immigrant who witnesses said was drunk died within minutes of being zapped by Vancouver police last week as well.

The deaths in both Canada and the U.S. were immediately followed with reassurance from police and Taser International, the weapon’s manufacturer, that they are a safe alternative to deadly force. There haven’t been any deaths attributed directly to taser use as of yet.

“We’re 59-0 in court. That’s a great record because we can get rid of the junk science in a courtroom setting,” said Steve Tuttle, the vice-president of Taser International. “It’s the safer alternative compared to a baton, canine bite, beanbag round or even kicking someone to the ground with a tackle.”

But “all the evidence is not in,” said Dr. Corey Slovis, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University Medical Centre. “Anyone who is completely sure about the safety of tasers is being intellectually dishonest.”

Slovis sent The Suburban extensive research that shows less than one percent of suspects tasered suffer significant injuries. But American police officers whose actions on which the results are based delivered, on average, one or two 50,000-volt shocks to each suspect, compared to the six Registre reportedly suffered at the hands of Montreal police.

“The more discharges that occur, the more likely of an adverse outcome,” Slovis said. “And when you look at taser deaths from excited delirium, often cocaine, alcohol and other drugs are involved.”

“Excited delirium” is not a medical condition, but rather a term police typically use to describe suspects who are hopped up on stimulants and out of control. Registre would have fallen into that category, as would Robert Bagnell, Roman Andreichikov and Clayton Alvin Willey, to name a few. They are all Canadians who have died in the last five years after snorting cocaine and subsequently being tasered by police.

Slovis points to a recent study that tested the weapons on 13 pigs and found that their heart rates soared to 300 beats per minute. All were found to later have cardiac arrhythmia and one died. Since cocaine and some other drugs also cause a person’s heart rate to skyrocket, it’s possible, Slovis says, that the combination could be lethal for some and more research on a possible link is needed.

“Tasers are safe when used appropriately, but when you use them there is an inherent danger that you have to be prepared for,” Slovis said. “We make sure that we have emergency responders available as soon as someone is tased. We make sure that if we see someone with excited delirium, that we treat them as a suspect under arrest, but also a patient who needs medical care.”

Instead of reaching for the taser immediately when dealing with suspects high on stimulants, Slovis suggests officers wait for backup and swarm the person once enough officers and first responders are on site. They can then restrain and medically sedate suspects with tranquilizers like Atavan and safely take them into custody.

With more evidence suggesting the weapons are not as flawless as they are made out to be, heavy-handed police officers may have to revert to pre-taser conflict resolution tactics, like dialogue and negotiation.

University of Florida student Andrew Meyer, presumably clean and sober, was recently zapped by police after he asked Senator John Kerry a couple of tough questions about the 2004 election at a school conference. The entire incident was filmed and Meyer became a celebrity on YouTube, a video-sharing website.

The death of public discourse at one school campus, however, pales in comparison to the death of a loved one. Registre’s family is taking Montreal police to court. After his death, the Quebec chapter of Amnesty International also called for the complete banning of taser guns. The Sûreté du Québec has taken over the investigation and is not commenting on the case.

The use of taser guns is being reviewed by both the RCMP and the Ministère de la Sécurité Publique, who commissioned an expert panel that concluded an outright ban was unnecessary. On Monday, they convened the media at the Police Academy in Nicolet where a demonstration of the taser was carried out in front of cameras. In similar demonstrations shown on television newscasts across North America, the volunteers being tasered were seemingly healthy and certainly not under the influence of stimulants like cocaine, nor were they in an agitated state — a far cry from many of the suspects on whom the weapon will actually be used.

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