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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Taser Inc.’s shocking spin

January 24, 2008
Mike Smith, NOW Magazine (Toronto)

PR session hosted by cop board pumps “life-giving” nature of volt gun

It would be fascinating to see a concise history of our “needs,” to trace inventions’ transition from novelty to necessity. I can’t pinpoint when, for instance, failure to own a cellphone became effrontery, but since we relegated our evolution to our tools, life’s been an arms race.

“Police have had no need for electric shocks for centuries,” said one of the 100-odd people gathered at police headquarters on College on January 17 to hear Taser International founder Thomas Smith. “Why do they now?”

In other words, why should we presuppose a need? First rule of advertising: establish assumptions, control the field of discussion.

One might have assumed, for instance, that taser deployment was up for debate when the Police Services Board hosted the forum. Not so – though by the end, those with concerns were given a generous chance to vent. They just had to sit through a sales pitch first.

First slide: a clean-cut officer subdues a “criminal,” denoted by the tattoos, sunglasses, goatee and all-black ensemble of tank top, jeans and knit cap. So the taser can help me subdue K-Fed. But what about agitated autistic men?

The subsequent reams of charts and sentences ending in percentage signs failed to make a persuasive case for tasers. But Smith was forthcoming on technical realities for which you, gentle reader, will of course never find an application: The X26 Taser used by tactical officers employs a single-use cartridge that fires two electrical wires up to 4.5 metres. The top cable is aimed using a laser sight; the lower is angled downward by 8 degrees. In order to be effective through heavy clothing, the hooks at the ends of the cables must come within 5 centimetres of the target’s skin.

“We were taught electricity is bad,” said Smith. “Don’t put your finger in the socket. But really, electricity is life.” Just to open your hand you use electrical signals. So, really, officers won’t be immobilizing you so much as stimulating you with a pleasant jog. At 50,000 volts per.

Earlier variants were ineffective because they worked only through pain; if targets wanted to fight through it, they could. Current models deliver enough juice to bypass intention, going right to the body; subjects seize up and collapse, regardless of willpower – a sharp reminder that we are, essentially, meat. Charming. It’s like bureaucracy in a holster.

The pitch breezed over two points of great interest. One: a 2006 study (in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology) suggests that people on cocaine are less likely to be affected by tasers. Two: tasers are not, Smith said, in any way a replacement for lethal force.

There goes a favourite rationale for taser use. Oh, did we mention that there have been fatalities? Of the 315 deaths following tasering in North America, 20 were officially linked by coroners to the weapon’s use. Perhaps the “excited delirium’’ diagnosis now a favourite of taser supporters, will come up more often.

Again, if they aren’t a substitute for lethal force, there goes another prime argument made for the initial adoption of tasers: there would be fewer shootings. So was that a lie? Or have police been shooting people they didn’t have to? Or did police really not know much about these things except that they were cool and they wanted them? Actually, you know what? Don’t answer.

Smith didn’t touch on taser deaths but did refer to stats showing that injuries happen in only two out of every 1,000 uses, and those are indirect, like hitting your head on the way down. So, you’ll be fine. Or you’ll die. Either way.

When one deputant said the UN has expressed concern that taser use is tantamount to torture, Smith objected. “We don’t want to see torturous devices used,” he said. “But if the UN is going to define torture as causing pain, then a baton is torture, stepping on a nail is torture.”

But as we’re learning from the U.S. military, torture is more than excruciating pain. Use of packing tape and water over the face may not cause actual pain, but the sensation of drowning causes intolerable mental anguish. If torture renders subjects unable to exercise their own will, then Smith’s earlier description of the new taser fits the bill.

At the meeting, Stuart O’Connell, representing Osgoode Hall’s Law and Autism Group, raised the circumstances of Robert Dziekanski’s death at the hands of the Vancouver RCMP. Pointing to the acute anxiety Dziekanski showed on tape, O’Connell, said that the state of agitation that makes officers wary is also the one that makes victims susceptible to a negative response to tasers.

“It’s called sensory integration dysfunction. The subjects don’t process sensory information in the same way as a neurotypical person. When police arrive in a situation, what they witness is that high anxiety.”

I’m not inclined to trust the phrase “sensory integration dysfunction” any more than “excited delirium.’’ But O’Connell makes an important point: for a weapon so powerful, there’s almost no consideration of how it interacts with an individual’s mental space.

Chief Bill Blair assured reporters that officers are well trained. Maybe, maybe not. I just happen to have spoken recently to an officer I won’t name who felt otherwise. The training isn’t enough, he said, since it doesn’t encourage rookies to be conflict mediators and doesn’t equip them to understand when not to use a taser. If I had to paraphrase, I’d say this: their training pumps them up, but it doesn’t humble them.

For now, rookies don’t carry the weapon, but the force wants them to. To give all front-line officers a taser would require a change in provincial law and the board’s agreement. Sure, board members were kind enough to give opponents free rein this time around.

What’s not clear is if they’re listening.

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