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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Tasers, Ottawa needs to do more

January 30, 2008
National Post

When a 35-year-old suspected crackhead punched a cop who was easing the Governor General's path through Vancouver's east side last week, he was seconds away from becoming a victim of Taser "usage creep."

There were two bizarre sidebars to the incident. Blasting a bystander with 50,000 debilitating volts within metres of a security-shrouded Gov-Gen. Michaƫlle Jean doesn't happen every day. Even stranger, in what appears to set a precedent, the powerful stun gun was fired by a transit cop under police supervision. Gosh, who's next to be issued Tasers? Dog catchers? Zap. Your dog's frozen in mid-growl.

Taser technology went on trial Wednesday when one of its founding brothers appeared on Parliament Hill to defend a 15-year-old technology that's made the pair filthy rich -- and raised a lot of questions.

Tom Smith appeared before the Public Safety and National Security Committee to plead not guilty to charges the Conducted Energy Device, as it is generically labeled, is a lethal weapon. Mr. Smith spends a lot of time on the road as his company's ambassador of damage control. He was in Toronto earlier this month and repeated his denial before MPs that the 270 North American deaths which allegedly followed a Taser takedown were linked in any way to his device.

He's personally been Tasered. So have his wife and mother. I asked to be Tasered by RCMP last year out of morbid journalistic curiosity, but had my request rejected as too risky. Whew.

But in politics, timing is everything. And Mr. Smith had the misfortune of appearing here the same day a Chicago study suggested pigs offered proof he was wrong. Scientists whacked a bunch of unfortunate swine with two 40-second jolts of Taser power and found most suffered lingering heart irregularities; two died minutes later.

Mind you, that prolonged zap is a tad excessive compared to the five-second hit usually done by police forces. And these are, after all, pigs. But it did raise the spectre of the Taser as something more deadly then pepper spray - and opened up the political floor to questions about its growing deployment in Canada.

One thing's certain. If the Vancouver airport zap on confused immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who died in the struggling aftermath, was to inflict Taser chill on law enforcement, the message didn't make it over the police scanner. News coverage suggests police are as aggressive as ever in using Tasers as a take-down technology, even in seemingly benign circumstances.

There are no legislative recommendations facing MPs on this committee. They are not (yet) advocating a moratorium or a national Taser restraint policy. But with the explosive growth in its use by RMCP, provincial and city police forces to occasionally iffy consequences, hard questions had to be asked.

Knowing what was coming, Taser International had hired influential former Conservative heavyweight Ken Boessenkool to work the federal backrooms. Perhaps that's why Conservative MPs eagerly defended the technology and polished the company's reputation with softball questions. Or perhaps they're just being unusually polite.

But Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, the former B.C. attorney-general who approved Canada's first Taser pilot project, was incredulous at Mr. Smith's blanket exoneration of the technology in all deaths. It is "riskier than I was led to believe and not used as sparingly" as intended, he noted.

There are many examples where Tasers have saved police from life-threatening circumstances and spared civilians a nasty if not fatal bullet wound from an officer's firearm.

But there are also links between itchy Taser trigger fingers and Canadians suffering medical distress or even death in the aftermath.

MPs might consider imposing national standards on the technology. As the RCMP's Commissioner of Public Complaints noted, there is no national police policy governing Taser use, no cost/benefit analysis of the results, no databank on the reasons for its deployment and no universal public reporting requirement.

Tasers make sense where physical restraint by police officers is not an option. But they're hard to justify in dealing with other circumstances such as drunks deemed too slow to obey orders, domestic incidents where weapons are not involved or against those offering only profane resistance to arrest.

For better or worse, the Taser is here to stay. With most Canadian police forces now packing a Taser punch and thousands of the devices on order, anyone threatening an officer should expect a major shock en route to a criminal record. But sneaking aboard a bus or subway will never rate a Taser charge -- so let's keep the technology away from transit cops.

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