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Monday, December 10, 2007

Time to zap the zapping?

December 10, 2007
By MURRAY MOLLARD, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association

Six or seven years ago, when the Taser was still relatively new, the media would call me to ask for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association position on the weapon. My standard response was: Assuming the weapon doesn't pose an unreasonable risk of safety to the public (and that's a big assumption), as long as there are legally enforceable standards regarding training, policies on its use and reporting requirements, the Taser might actually save lives.

Fast forward seven years to today, after a reported 19 civilian deaths in Canada related to the Taser and growing (and hundreds in the U.S.), the BCCLA is now calling for a nation-wide moratorium on Tasers and a public inquiry into the weapon.

On Nov. 19, the government of British Columbia promised a public inquiry into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski that will examine, among other issues, the Taser. Some police forces, including the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, have recently announced they will suspend the use or introduction of the Taser into their weaponry pending a review.

Police forces in Canada sold the Taser as a less than lethal force that would be used instead of lethal force -- firearms. The classic case would be the man with serious mental health issues threatening police and the public with a knife. Rather than shoot to kill, the pitch went, the police could subdue him with the safe Taser.


But judging from the infamous Dziekanski video and other anecdotal evidence, the Taser appears to have become the police's option of first resort rather than second last. Why this apparent change in tactics? Some police have suggested that if we want more women police officers we need to give them tools to arrest more powerful men. Possibly police unions have had an influence in arguing for more pro-active Taser use to reduce the rate of injury to rank and file.

However, the most likely explanation for this change is the emergence of a phenomenon coined "excited delirium." Police and some doctors have identified a cluster of symptoms, including erratic, agitated behaviour, profuse sweating and superhuman strength, that suggest a person is in a state of severe medical distress. They postulate that the sooner the person can be subdued and handed over to medical professionals, the better his chance of survival.

According to this theory, the application of the Taser has no relation to the harm (including death) that a person endures. It has everything to do with the underlying medical condition caused by other sources. A few small problems. This phenomenon is not medically recognized. Moreover, there is this troubling fact that there continues to be a growing nexus between Tasers and deaths. Finally, according to a report by the Victoria Police Department which conducted a review of the Taser a couple of years ago for the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner in British Columbia, there has been very little independent research into whether the Taser poses an unreasonable risk of safety to the public.

A growing number of deaths, not enough independent research, no nation-wide standards for training, use and reporting. A very skeptical public. Sound like good reasons to apply caution and a moratorium on Taser use.

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