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Saturday, November 24, 2007

The truth about tasers

November 24, 2007
Don Butler, The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa police have been spared the controversy surrounding the use of Tasers, writes Don Butler, something the force attributes to good training, sound policy, and perhaps a little bit of luck.

At about 2:30 a.m. last Sunday morning, all hell broke loose in the ByWard Market. As a stunned crowd of barhoppers looked on, as many as 10 Ottawa police cruisers roared up and blocked the intersection of Dalhousie and York streets. Officers descended on a car driven by Marlena Sarazin, a 30-year-old single mother of two, smashing its windows when she didn't obey orders to get out.

According to one eyewitness, police then opened the driver's door, pulled Ms. Sarazin out and shoved her face-down onto the pavement. After one officer handcuffed her and pinned her with a knee, another zapped her with a 50,000-volt charge from his X26 Taser. Moments earlier, police say, they had tried to pull Ms. Sarazin over for suspected impaired driving. Instead, they allege she sped away, running over an officer's foot, then crashed into a taxi and a police cruiser. She has been charged with several offences including impaired driving, dangerous driving, failing to stop for police and resisting arrest.

Peter Beach, Ms. Sarazin's lawyer, won't discuss what his client told him about the Tasering. "It's obviously extremely painful," he says. "She came into the office on the Monday and there's a huge bruise on her arm, absolutely huge. There are two large puncture marks on her arm where the Taser went in." Because he doesn't have all the facts, Mr. Beach is not yet prepared to accuse police of overreacting. "I'm not going to jump up and down and say this is an outrage," he says, though he adds: "On the face of it, it seems that it might be." The incident is noteworthy for several reasons. For one, the target was a woman; the vast majority are men. It was just the 11th time this year that Ottawa police have used a Taser to subdue a suspect. And it was only the second time that someone other than a member of Ottawa's tactical squad had ever pulled the trigger.

The nature of the incident also adds fuel to the debate that has broken out over Taser use following the caught-on-video death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver airport last month.

Thursday, a 45-year-old man died in a Dartmouth, N.S. jail a day after being Tasered, the 17th such death in Canada since the devices were approved for use. None, though, has yet been directly attributed to Tasers.

About 275 people in the United States have died after being Tasered. According to Amnesty International, coroners have listed the Taser jolt as a contributing factor in more than 30 of those deaths.

And the bad PR for Tasers just keeps coming. Yesterday, the UN's Committee against Torture said the using the weapons constitutes "a form of torture."

Earlier this week, Paul Kennedy, who has been assigned to review the RCMP's use of Tasers in the wake of Mr. Dziekanski's death, said police sometimes use the devices "inappropriately at too early a level of intervention." His concern echoes that of Amnesty International, which said last June that Tasers "are being used too readily by law-enforcement officers and too low down the use-of-force scale and not as a weapon of last resort." Amnesty wants police forces to suspend use of the devices pending a "thorough, impartial and independent" investigation into their medical and other effects.

The RCMP and the Edmonton police force, in particular, have been repeatedly embroiled in controversy over Taser use. Along with Mr. Dziekanski's death, the RCMP was involved in three of the six Taser cases involving death in 2005 and 2006. And between 2002 and 2006, Edmonton police were involved in eight of 15 Taser cases listed by Amnesty International as involving excessive use of force.

By contrast, Ottawa police -- the first in Ontario to get Tasers -- have had no Taser-related deaths and have been involved in only a single controversy since the devices were introduced in 2000 as a pilot project. That was in 2003, when Ottawa and RCMP officers Tasered several Algerians during a sit-in in the immigration minister's office. Five threatened to sue, but no officers were disciplined. During the same protest, Ottawa police also zapped Paul Smith, a self-described expert in civil disobedience, as they struggled to get him into a cruiser. Mr. Smith, who was handcuffed at the time, had "gone limp" when he was Tasered twice in the leg by Const. Paulo Batista, later found guilty of misconduct by the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services.

Staff Sgt. Mike Maloney, head of the Ottawa police tactical unit, has no simple explanation for why Taser controversy has largely bypassed city police. "I don't know that we're doing anything differently," he says.

Nothing is 100-per-cent safe, he acknowledges, including Tasers. "We could have people with pre-existing conditions that we could Taser tomorrow. Or we could have someone tonight who's under the influence of alcohol or drugs and we Taser them and they pass away." Yet he resists the suggestion that Ottawa police have simply been lucky. "I like to believe that we do practise due diligence and we use the equipment properly. We've had it for six years, and we have experienced tactical officers who are using it." Ottawa police deploy Tasers surprisingly rarely. They were used only 16 times during the two-year pilot project that led the province to authorize their use by police tactical units everywhere. Since then, the 32 members of Ottawa's tactical unit have used them between a dozen and 19 times per year.

Usage is likely to increase in future, though. In 2005, the province agreed to let frontline supervisors use the weapon. Ottawa police began issuing the devices to supervisors in October. By the middle of 2008, about 80 Ottawa officers should have them. With Tasers in the hands of more officers, Staff Sgt. Maloney expects more use. In the past month alone, two frontline supervisors -- including the officer who Tasered Ms. Sarazin -- have used them on suspects.

Ultimately, Staff Sgt. Maloney hopes the province will let all frontline officers use Tasers. "They're the ones who are encountering these situations," he says. "We're not saying this solves all policing problems. It doesn't. But we feel strongly that this is a good tool for police officers. We do believe it saves lives." In Kingston, where police have deployed Tasers only 17 times in five years, Chief Bill Closs says his officers were affected by a Taser-related death that occurred in 2004. A Kingston man high on cocaine died a couple of hours after being Tasered.

An autopsy attributed the death to drug overdose. But Chief Closs said the experience has prompted his officers to "pause for one half-second" before using Tasers. "When something like that happens and you have a police force of 175 officers, they very quickly understand the serious consequences of using that weapon." In Ontario, Tasers are considered intermediate weapons. They can be used against those offering active resistance to officers, says Staff Sgt. Maloney -- people who are "either physically putting up their fists, turning their back or just not complying with your demands. That's when the Taser can be considered to be used." That doesn't mean they necessarily will be used, however. Officers must first evaluate the situation, considering such factors as the size and aggression of the subject, Staff Sgt. Maloney said.

"There are times you don't have very much time to make that assessment. It can go from verbal interaction with the individual all the way up to lethal force very, very quickly." Nor is there any prohibition against using Tasers on unarmed people. A recent review of RCMP Taser cases found that nearly 80 per cent of those zapped were not brandishing a weapon.

Tasers, says Staff Sgt. Maloney, improve safety by reducing the need to use physical force, including police batons. The electrical jolt from a Taser incapacitates subjects by jamming the nervous system and overpowering the normal signals of the body's nerve fibres.

And Tasers are here to stay, says Chief Closs. But he thinks politicians and police governing bodies have misled the public by selling them as an alternative to lethal force. That has created a false public expectation that police will only use Tasers when they might otherwise have to shoot someone. In fact, he says, the rules permit their use whenever police are dealing with someone who is actively resisting, engaging in "assaultive behaviour" or posing a threat to the safety of the officer or the public.

"The public should have been told the whole truth, and not part of the truth," says Chief Closs, who thinks frontline officers who use Tasers "have been hung out to dry." Many of the fatal incidents in Canada and the U.S. have been blamed on cocaine intoxication or other drug overdoses, as well as a condition known as "excited delirium." Though there is no medical consensus on the condition, excited delirium involves a constellation of symptoms including bizarre, purposeless behaviour, hyperactivity, incoherent shouting, extreme aggression and paranoia. Those in its grip may sweat profusely, have very hot skin, unbelievable strength and be impervious to pain.

A 2005 report done by the Victoria police for the office of the police complaints commissioner described excited delirium as a "medical emergency" that requires intervention and treatment, both for the individual's safety and for the safety of the public. "Immediate intervention with a single Taser application, followed by appropriate restraint techniques that do not compromise respiration and a speedy handover to medical personnel may represent the best possible scenario," the report says.

Ottawa police avoid things that may increase the risk of death associated with Tasers, according to Staff Sgt. Maloney. For example, Amnesty International says all six people who died in Canada after being Tasered in 2005 and 2006 were subjected to multiple cycles of the device. One man in Niagara received 12 shocks in three minutes.

It's unusual for Ottawa police to zap subjects more than once, Staff Sgt. Maloney says. "I've never seen it more than three times," he says. "If it's working, once is usually enough." Amnesty has also raised concerns about the use of pepper spray, which also affects respiration, in combination with Tasering. That occurred in four of the six deaths in 2005 and 2006.

Staff Sgt. Maloney says Ottawa officers might pepper-spray a subject initially, then Taser them if that doesn't work. "But you wouldn't Taser, have the person under control, and then pepper spray. If the Taser is working, that's your last means." In a 2004 report, Amnesty said five of nine people who died in Canada after being Tasered between 2002 and 2004 were "hogtied," with their wrists or elbows bound behind them to their shackled ankles. This could make breathing difficult and contribute to "positional asphyxia." But Staff Sgt. Maloney says hog- tying, though once practised by Ottawa police, is now banned. Once suspects are secured and handcuffed, officers are instructed to get them off their stomachs and into a "recovery position" as quickly as possible.

For greater accountability, new Tasers come with built-in audio and video recording capability. That encourages proper use, says Staff Sgt. Maloney. "I don't think we should hide from that." In the wake of Mr. Dziekanski's death, Staff Sgt. Maloney says police in Canada "are taking a very big hit. People are very upset, particularly with the RCMP.

"They've seen some very graphic footage. I don't know when the last time was we've seen somebody die on national television." Even his five-year-old daughter asked about Mr. Dziekanski's death "because she knows daddy is a police officer." He told her it was an accident, he says. "I guess that's how I look at it -- it was an accident. It wasn't intended. I can believe those four officers are having a tough time. A human being lost his life. And we don't swear an oath to do that." Meanwhile, Mr. Beach says his client, Marlena Sarazin, is still recovering from her Taser experience. Days later her hands were still tingling, though she's been told those effects will gradually subside.

Tasers were marketed as a less-invasive way of subduing suspects, Mr. Beach notes, "as if they were something like a whiff of laughing gas. They're obviously much more invasive than that."

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