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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

EDITORIAL: Time to recognize the risks of tasers

October 23, 2007
Globe and Mail

If Canadian police officers had fired a revolver at Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport and at Quilem Registre on the streets of Montreal, and killed them, people would have been outraged. After all, while each man may have been out of control, neither one posed a serious danger to anybody. But when police used a taser, not a regular gun, and both men died, the outrage was muted because of a belief, repeated again yesterday by Robert Lafrenière, Quebec's deputy public security minister, that tasers do not kill.

But they do. Here is one way: The person shot develops tetany, a physiological condition of muscular exhaustion. It can lead to death by respiratory paralysis, John Butt, a forensic pathologist in British Columbia who does private consulting in Canada and the United States, explained in an interview yesterday.

Dr. Butt is not opposed to taser use, within limits. When he served on a committee of the B.C. Police Complaints Commission that examined taser use two years ago, the committee urged that jolts from the stun gun not be given too quickly in succession because rapid use might contribute to tetany. Mr. Dziekanski was shot twice, say the RCMP (four times, says an independent witness). In Montreal, officers jolted Mr. Registre an unknown number of times (his sister says six times). Of the six Canadians who died in 2005 and 2006 after being shot by police tasers, all were shot more than once, according to Amnesty International Canada.

The death of the Polish-speaking Mr. Dziekanski was horrifying and seemingly avoidable. He had reportedly travelled five hours on a bus in Poland and 13 hours on a plane, and then been held at Canadian customs and immigration for some hours. He couldn't find his mother, who had waited 10 hours for him in vain. He was lost and no one understood him. He began shouting and throwing computers. The mind boggles that humanity is smart enough to invent the taser but unable to think up a way to intervene in this fraught situation without killing the man.

There's a bit of semantics at play, too. Police in Canada say tasers do not directly cause death. The question should be, however, whether a taser used (often more than once) on a person in a state of delirium, and followed up by severe restraint, may cause death. The answer is that, in just 4½ years, 17 people who were tasered in Canada have died. Death might not have come directly, but it came - far too often.

There is also a crucial flaw in the police logic (and the logic of some medical experts) around taser use. The police say when someone is in a wild, irrational state of delirium, he might die even when not tasered. What they mean is that (apart from the occasional death from the delirium itself) the death occurs after a neck restraint, hog-tying or asphyxia caused when police officers put their knees on the person's chest. The police defend tasers by arguing that they are no more dangerous than other restraints. But does that mean tasers are safe? Of course not.

Would Mr. Dziekanski have died if he had not been tasered? (An autopsy did not reveal why he died; further tests are scheduled.) How about the other 16 over the past 4½ years? Any doubt should weigh heavily against taser use in all but those situations where it is an alternative to lethal force, such as firearms. Until we know the answer, police need much stricter limits on taser use. It should be a last-resort alternative to deadly force.

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