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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Task force rejects call to stop using tasers in Quebec

October 23, 2007
RHÉAL SÉGUIN, The Globe and Mail

QUEBEC CITY -- A Quebec government task force rejected calls for a moratorium on the taser gun despite two recent deaths in the province and one in B.C. following use of the weapon. The task force has been at work since last spring, but three recent incidents have injected a sense of urgency to complete its report.

On Oct. 17, days after his arrest in which a taser was used, Montreal resident Quilem Registre died after going into cardiac arrest five times, his sister said. A Quebec City man, Claudio Castagnetta, died Sept. 20 from self-inflicted wounds to his head after being zapped at least four times, according to witnesses. On Oct. 14, Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died minutes after being jolted by a taser at the Vancouver airport.

Victims' lawyers and family members, as well as community activists and Amnesty International, have called for a moratorium on use of the weapon.

Also known as a stun gun, the taser discharges a 50,000-volt electric shock that temporarily paralyzes the muscles. Police and government authorities in Quebec contend it is an effective weapon and dismissed allegations that it has caused 17 deaths in the country in less than five years.

"In no instances has it been shown that the death of someone was related to the use of the taser gun," said Robert Lafrenière, assistant deputy minister for the Ministry of Public Security.

The task force will soon make recommendations defining standards on the use of the taser. The head of the task force, Ronald Bélanger, a Quebec police academy specialist on the use of force, argued that the taser has played a useful role as an alternative weapon when employed by trained police officers.

"The stun gun is used by 240,000 police officers in 43 countries in the world. In some circumstances it has served as an alternative to firearms and has saved lives," Mr. Bélanger said during a news conference yesterday.

Authorities acknowledged, however, there were risks involved in using the stun gun on individuals who suffer from mental illness.

"This situation is more disturbing," René Blais, head of the Quebec Poison Control Centre, who is also member of the task force, said in an interview. "Such individuals don't know what has happened to them after receiving an electric shock. They will remain agitated and strongly resist arrest. Their body temperature goes up, they need more oxygen and the physical reaction can be deadly. The taser's electric shock doesn't provoke the reaction, but rather the physical force used to arrest them."

In Quebec, eight police forces, including the Sûreté du Québec, have used the taser as far back as 2001. Guidelines were introduced last February, but, with the recent deaths, the government is looking to impose a protocol to be followed by all police forces.

For instance, the task force will recommend that police clearly identify individuals who may be at risk from taser use, including people who may be suffering from mental illnesses or showing signs of excited delirium.

It will also call for more restrictive procedures before and during the use of the gun, as well as improved training of officers employing the weapon.

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