November 21, 2007
JANET BAGNALL, The Montreal Gazette
Six months ago, Amnesty International issued a report on the use of Tasers by various police departments across Canada. In it, the human-rights organization described acts that, taken together, add up to a culture of thoughtless, even careless brutality. The cases demonstrate a deficiency of training and guidelines, a lack of judgment and, too often, an absence of remorse.
Had we paid more attention to this report, Robert Dziekanski might still be alive. But it seems to have taken - more than the 40-year-old Polish man's actual death - a horrifying video of it to force authorities to respond.
For days after Dziekanski died on the floor of Vancouver International Airport, airport officials and the RCMP tried to hold the dead man accountable in varying degrees for what happened to him: He was agitated and violent, he couldn't speak English, the police had no option, other people were in danger, and the Taser was used as a last resort.
Then the video, shot by a passenger at the airport, hit the airwaves, putting out a very different picture. In it, the whole world could see Dziekanski die in agony, after being shot at least twice and possibly four times with 50,000-volts of electricity within seconds of four RCMP police officers approaching him.
It's important to realize that the significance of the video was that it proved what happened and it also proved that airport and police officials were deliberately distorting the facts.The usual objections to official spin - witnesses and still photos - are not nearly as effective.
Dziekanski's death following the use of a Taser fit only too well into the pattern Amnesty International had found in its study, Canada: Inappropriate and Excessive Use of Tasers. Since tasers first were used in North America, beginning in 2001, Amnesty International says that more than 270 people in the U.S. and 17 people in Canada have died after being shocked with the weapon.
In addition to information on the deaths, Amnesty International has also collected information on cases where the victim survived to tell the tale:
An Edmonton police officer in 2003 searching a hotel with two other officers for a robber armed with a knife, used his Taser to rouse two sleeping hotel guests. (The officer was charged with assault with a weapon.)
In 2004, Halifax regional police used a taser three times on a woman who was handcuffed and held down in a police cell. (Both officers involved were cleared of assault.)
In 2005, a 42-year-old restaurant owner was shocked with a Taser as he lay unconscious. An RCMP officer ordered the shock in an attempt to revive him. (The officer pleaded guilty in court to assault with a weapon. He was given a conditional discharge and 50 hours' community service.)
A 66-year-old lawyer, Brian Fish, was taking photos of Edmonton police intervening at the 2006 Stanley Cup victory celebrations. When Fish refused a police demand to stop taking photos, an officer pushed Fish to the ground and tasered him twice in his back. A police investigation found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers. Fish has filed a complaint.
RCMP officers in New Brunswick in 2006 tasered a 17-year-old boy at least 13 times, hitting his lower back and his front, including his groin. A witness to the arrest disputed claims by the police that the boy was resisting arrest: "They kept telling him to get on his back but every time he tried to turn, they'd keep tasering him. It was just horrible."
Tasers are inherently open to abuse. It can be readily used as a "pain compliance tool," as Amnesty International describes it, when it should be reserved for serious threats that could escalate to deadly force.
Tasers are instead becoming the substitute of choice for officers who can't be bothered with effective policing, Tom Engel said. Of the more than 290 Taser-related deaths it reported on, Amnesty International said only 25 of those killed were said to have been armed, none with a firearm.
"The vast majority of people who have died after being struck by Tasers," Amnesty International wrote, "have been unarmed men who did not pose a threat of death or serious injury when they were electro-shocked. In many cases, they did not appear to have posed any significant threat at all."
We can be grateful to British Columbia Attorney-General Wally Oppal for understanding that public authorities have a duty to provide answers when things go horribly wrong. Alarmingly, no one else involved in Robert Dziekanski's case seems to have a clue about public responsibility.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
November 21, 2007