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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Police need clear guidelines on taser use

December 18, 2007
National Post and Montreal Gazette

On Sept. 18, Claudio Castagnetta, 32, was a visibly disturbed man, wandering around in bare feet, obviously disoriented and refusing to leave a Quebec City store when asked to. Two days later, he was dead in a police cell.

At his arrest, Castagnetta, an immigrant from Italy, was hit three or four times by a 50,000-volt jolt from a police Taser. Witnesses do not agree on whether he resisted arrest. Castagnetta was jailed. Some time later, he was found unconscious. He was pronounced dead in hospital.

In prison, witnesses say he had shown clear signs of mental illness and distress. He was seen hitting his head several times and, according to an autopsy report, suffered a self-inflicted head injury. That report, according to Le Soleil, also found that at the time of his death Castagnetta was intoxicated with amphetamines.

A great deal went wrong in this case. An excessive and too-hasty use of a Taser on an obviously disturbed, non-violent man is an important part of what went wrong.

Across Canada this year, there have been at least 15 investigations into the use of Tasers, five of them in Quebec, including Castagnetta. In Canada, Tasers have been involved in as many as 20 deaths over the past four and a half years. It is time police forces, their civilian overseers and elected officials across the country took a hard look at why Tasers, which were supposed to be a weapons of second-last resort, have become a tool of almost casual use.

Police departments, generally permit the use of firearms only for self-defence or against imminent threat of death or life-threatening injury. Tasers were introduced as a safer alternative to guns, which they may well be, but that is not the same thing as saying they are safe. A recent study found no reduction in police firearm use where Tasers are introduced.

The idea that Tasers are a safer alternative to guns should include the message that Tasers, too, are to be used only in cases where there is a clear threat to human life and safety. Resisting arrest does not often meet that minimum requirement.

In Castagnetta's case, that is all that happened. He did not want to be placed in handcuffs. There is no indication that anyone tried to calm him down or talk him out of the store or call for medical help.

Police forces need to to set out strict guidelines around the use of Tasers, and to impress upon officers the risks inherent in their use.

Last week, the RCMP public complaints commission called for limits, but those suggested guidelines fall short of what is needed - they held the door open for Taser use when a suspect is "combative."

Combativeness is open to interpretation. Was Castagnetta combative? Was Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died Oct. 14 at Vancouver International Airport? Too much police discretion is a bad thing when it comes to Tasers. Tight guidelines for their use should be an urgent priority - for public confidence as well as public safety.

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