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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

New shotgun taser coming, safety committee told

January 30, 2008

OTTAWA – Coming soon to a police force near you: the Taser shotgun, capable of firing a debilitating electronic zap from 20 metres – twice the reach of current 50,000-volt stun guns. Taser International chairman Tom Smith described the new weapon as he took tough questions Wednesday from MPs studying the safety of his company's devices. Taser shotguns are being tested in the U.S. and will likely be available by next year, he said. Police forces all over the world, including Canada, have expressed interest.

Smith appeared before the Commons all-party public safety committee probing events around the death Oct. 14 of Robert Dziekanski. The agitated Polish immigrant died soon after being shocked and subdued by RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport. His ordeal, caught on videotape by a civilian witness, unleashed international outrage.

Smith was repeatedly pressed by Liberal and Bloc MPs on whether police should only use Tasers as a last resort before firing their guns. "I'm going to rely on use-of-force experts who say: 'You don't take a Taser to a gun fight'," Smith replied. He said the idea that Tasers are a last resort before the use of lethal force is a widespread misunderstanding of mysterious origin. "Our position has always been that it's an intermediate device . . . similar to pepper spray or the baton. It's not a substitute for a firearm and was never intended as such."

There are now more than 6,500 Tasers in use across Canada by police and correctional officers.

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, former attorney general of B.C., said he was given a much different sales pitch nine years ago when the province was grappling with whether to adopt the new stun guns. "I was told this would be a weapon of last resort before the gun," he told reporters. "The policing community at least gave me the assurance, if I remember correctly . . . that it would be used sparingly."

Reports of "usage creep" – including that delivered last month by the Commission for Complaints Against the RCMP – are feeding concern that Tasers are being abused on even passive suspects with sometimes deadly results, Dosanjh said. He wasn't convinced by Smith's claims Wednesday that there is no direct link between Tasers and the deaths of 16 Canadians soon after they were zapped. Two more cases, including Dziekanski's, are still under review. "They don't have any conclusive Canadian scientific studies," Dosanjh said. Nor are there cross-country statistics on how often police are using the weapons, or how injuries to police and suspects have been affected.

Smith said any risk posed by the devices is far outweighed by the decreased risk to police and suspects. He said he has heard from police officers around the globe: "Thank you for this tool. I didn't have to get hurt." Smith repeatedly described the Taser as "one tool in the tool box. There's no perfect solution." But for those with lingering concerns, there is a sure-fire way not to have to deal with stun guns or police force of any kind, he added: "Don't fight with police."

Smith and his brother loved the Star Wars movies growing up and designed the Taser after two friends were shot in a "crazy road-rage incident," he told MPs. "My brother and I started our company with the mission of protecting life."

But the deaths of about 280 Americans soon after they were Tasered has kept company lawyers busy to the tune of about $5 million in yearly legal fees, he said. Smith stressed that the Taser has never been directly blamed for a death, although it has been cited as a contributing factor in 30 cases.

Amnesty International Canada and other critics have called for Taser use to be suspended until an independent, comprehensive study is done on health effects.

The RCMP directed its officers last month to use the Taser only on people who actively resist them. The Mounties describe stun guns as intermediate weapons but have stressed it's wrong to zap a person for passively resisting officers by acting like dead weight, or making an officer lift, pull, drag or push them to maintain control.

MPs are expected to hear from the RCMP, customs officials and airport workers before drafting a report to Parliament. The committee's work is in addition to a B.C. public inquiry and several other reviews of the circumstances surrounding Dziekanski's death.

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