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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Doubts linger over business ties of taser's champion in Canada - Victoria police officer Darren Laur

December 11, 2007

B.C. sergeant who shaped police views about weapon had stock options in its U.S. maker

Perhaps no one is more responsible for tasers coming to Canada than Darren Laur. The veteran Victoria police officer played a pivotal role in a 1998 pilot program that led to his force adopting the weapons permanently. A subsequent research paper he wrote - which concluded that tasers were safe and effective - laid the groundwork for the devices' spread to police departments across the country.

But questions linger about his motivations. Sgt. Laur has received several payments from Taser International since 1999, documents show, including expenses to travel to its training courses and to train two U.S. police forces to use tasers. In 2001, a private company that Sgt. Laur co-owns with his wife designed a holstering system for Taser, which paid the couple by issuing them 775 stock options days after Taser International went public.

The Globe and Mail's investigation reveals Sgt. Laur's financial dealings with Taser International recently caused his own police department to recommend that officers be prohibited from business relationships with outside weapons manufacturers. The British Columbia police complaint commissioner also concluded that Sgt. Laur should not have been selected to conduct a high-profile 2004 review of tasers, one that advocates use of the weapon and that the company itself often cites.

Despite this, there has never been a comprehensive review of Sgt. Laur's early influence on the myriad of Canadian pro-taser studies, including a highly lauded review from the Canadian Police Research Centre.

In December, 1998, the Victoria police became the first in Canada to launch a six-month pilot program to test stun-gun technology on patrol. This caught the attention of police departments across Canada. At the time, Sgt. Laur was the department's top use-of-force expert, and he was the first Canadian officer to travel on Taser's expense to its Arizona headquarters to be trained as what the company calls a "master instructor."

After the pilot program ended in the summer of 1999, Victoria police decided to add tasers to their toolkit, and a report by Sgt. Laur was circulated to police departments nationwide.

"I have been inundated with phone calls from Canadian police departments and correctional agencies wanting information on the TASER and the results of our study," Sgt. Laur wrote in the report. "As I predicted, the floodgates in Canada for the use of TASER technology have opened up."

Victoria's self-described success with the weapon seemed to prompt other departments to launch pilot projects. At the end of 2000, forces in Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto were all testing tasers.

By then, Sgt. Laur was also being paid to train some U.S. police forces on behalf of Taser International.

Neither Sgt. Laur nor Taser International responded to requests for comment yesterday.

Victoria police documents show that in April, 2000, the Laurs' private company was retained by the Jackson County sheriff's department "to provide training in TASER's weapons system." Taser paid for Sgt. Laur to make the trip. In 2001, Sgt. Laur's company designed a "holstering system" for the M26 Taser. In exchange for the design rights, the company issued 775 stock options, worth about $5,000. Sgt. Laur sold the shares on Nov. 7, 2003, when the stock traded at between $5.04 and $5.39.

The public wouldn't learn of Sgt. Laur's investment until 2005, when the officer was asked to conduct an impartial review of tasers after a Vancouver man, Robert Bagnell, was shot a year earlier with the weapon and soon died. Four days before his 45th birthday, police found Mr. Bagnell behaving erratically at a Vancouver residential hotel. He was high on cocaine and had barricaded himself in a bathroom on the fifth floor. They tasered the struggling man. His heart stopped.

After Mr. Bagnell's death, the B.C. office of the police complaint commissioner ordered two investigations. One was an examination of taser use in B.C. The investigating team - which included Sgt. Laur - issued two reports, both of which advocated the future use of stun guns.

The first report in September, 2004, made no mention of Sgt. Laur's financial dealings with Taser International. However, in the ensuing months, Bagnell family lawyer Cameron Ward learned about Sgt. Laur's investments and raised the issue with the Vancouver police and the police complaint commissioner.

When the final report was issued four months later, it included a disclaimer on its final page: "Darren Laur held stock in TASER International and provided training to two external agencies at the request of those agencies."

In an interview yesterday, B.C. police complaint commissioner Dirk Ryneveld said he didn't know about Sgt. Laur's stock options when he was assigned to the review. "I probably would have preferred that no one who had any relationship with Taser [be involved]," Mr. Ryneveld said. He added that any conflict of interest was "perceived" and not actual, and didn't undermine the validity of the report.

U.S. court documents show Sgt. Laur and five other U.S. police officers - most of whom promoted Taser's products or urged their cities to buy them - got stock options between 2001 and 2003.

The revelations in 2005 about Sgt. Laur's financial relationship with Taser led Mr. Bagnell's sister, Patti Gillman, to log a formal complaint with the police complaints commissioner. That sparked Victoria police to launch an internal investigation into whether Sgt. Laur had violated the force's conflict-of-interest policy.

"I do consider Sgt. Laur to have been in an apparent and perceived conflict of interest by reason of having held a financial interest in TASER through his stock options," the investigator, Inspector Cory Bond, wrote in her report. Insp. Bond concluded that Sgt. Laur did not specifically violate the conflict-of-interest policy at the time, because the force had no procedure for conflict-of-interest disclosure.

Insp. Bond recommended that the force review its policy and develop specific restrictions on relationships with weapons manufacturers. "Such an interest might be seen to influence or impair police officers in the exercise of their duties," she wrote.

1 comment:

E. John Love said...

An interesting article, and also, as tragic as it was, it's good to see that Bob's incident is helping to add critical mass to the debate over Taser use and safety.

In the Oliver Stone movie "JFK", didn't Donald Sutherland's character tell Kevin Costner to "follow the money"? That is so often the case in situations where corporate motivations come into question. Follow the money.