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Saturday, January 19, 2008

EDITORIAL: Rein in those tasers

January 19, 2008
The Globe and Mail

At a public forum organized by the Toronto Police Services Board on Thursday, Thomas Smith, co-founder of Arizona-based Taser International Inc., found himself placed on the defensive by members of the public opposed to the weapon. Patti Gillman, the sister of a man who died after being tasered by Vancouver police in 2004, told Mr. Smith that her brother, Robert Bagnell, was unarmed and was no threat to police or to the public when he was fatally shot with the stun gun. There was little Mr. Smith could really be expected to say in response to such information. His company merely manufactures the 50,000-volt weapon. Taser International doesn't decide how and when to use it. That's left to the discretion of individual police officers. And that's part of the problem.

Tasers are held up by police as a relatively safe alternative to handguns. Yet they are often used in cases where police would never have pulled handguns. It is inconceivable, for example, that police would have used handguns in the case of the 17-year-old Ottawa high-school student tasered last month because he was acting strangely near a busy road. The boy said he was distraught over a breakup with his girlfriend, but was out of the traffic and had his hands up when he was tasered by police.

The same surely can be said of 16-year-old Randy Fryingpan, who was tasered six times in just over a minute by Edmonton police in 2002. The boy was drunk, and sleeping in the back seat of a friend's car. He was tasered when he failed to respond to an officer's orders to get up. A judge later described the incident as cruel and unusual punishment. The same applies to the 2004 Edmonton police tasering of Hector Jara, who was given jolts even though he had surrendered to police and was lying face down on the ground after a car chase. The courts said that Mr. Jara was "completely at [the police's] mercy" when he was twice tasered and that police actions in that case were "irresponsible."

Deaths as a result of police taserings, such as those of Mr. Bagnell or Robert Dziekanski, the Polish newcomer tasered to death by the RCMP at Vancouver International Airport last Oct. 14, are still relatively unusual. But police taserings are not, and would become even more a matter of routine if police in Toronto and many other jurisdictions in Canada had their way.

That fact must weigh heavily in the assessment by the Toronto Police Services Board and the Ontario government of the request from Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to spend $8.6-million to equip and train every front-line officer in Toronto with a taser. Mr. Blair believes that wide dissemination of the taser among officers is a way to "save lives." In some instances it might. But the tasers also cost lives, and risk imposing other costs, including jeopardizing public confidence in the police. Civilian authorities should be highly dubious about making Mr. Smith's frightening device ubiquitous.

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