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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taser boss to speak at Toronto police forum

January 15, 2008

How many volts from a taser does it take to stun a person? How many to kill one? What if the target's clothing is wet? And what if he's stoned on cocaine?

Few are better poised to field such questions than Thomas Smith, chairman of the board and co-founder of Arizona-based Taser International Inc., North America's overwhelming market leader in the production and sale of stun guns.

And in an unusual and probably lively public forum Thursday evening, Mr. Smith will get the chance to provide some answers.

The event, which will take place at police headquarters, has already attracted criticism.

Offered by the company and arranged by the Toronto Police Services Board, Mr. Smith's presentation comes as the civilian-oversight board weighs a request by Police Chief Bill Blair to spend $8.6-million to equip and train every front-line officer with a taser.

The move follows recommendations last year in Toronto by two separate inquest juries looking into the deaths of people killed in confrontations with police. It would see the number of tasers deployed by city police rise significantly from the current 500 or so.

In a recent interview with The Globe and Mail, Chief Blair vigorously advocated the use of tasers as an alternative to guns.

"I think it is a device that, in the hands of a well-trained police officer clearly instructed on its appropriate use and properly supervised and fully accountable for its use, has the capacity to save lives," he said.

"That's been our experience."

In Toronto, there has not been a single serious injury resulting from tasers, Chief Blair said, noting that officers receive double the training prescribed by Taser International.

"And I can recount for you literally dozens of occasions where lives have been saved because of the use of a taser."

But should their use widen? Not everybody is impressed with what are formally known as "conductive energy devices," which fire darts that deliver a five-second shock and immobilize the muscular system.

Amnesty International has long urged a moratorium on tasers until further research clarifies the risks. In December, the RCMP narrowed guidelines governing taser deployment after a series of confrontations in British Columbia and Nova Scotia that saw three people die after being shocked by stun guns.

But what chiefly bothers John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor and veteran police critic, about Thursday's session is what he terms "the cozy relationship" between Taser International and those who endorse its products. Giving Mr. Smith such "a privileged vantage point" to promote his company is plain wrong, Mr. Sewell said yesterday.

There were no apologies from the protagonists.

Neither Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle nor police board chairman Alok Mukherjee responded to messages seeking comment.

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