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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Taser International uses aggressive lobbying and legal tactics to silence controversy about taser safety

February 6, 2008
Ish Theilheimer, straightgoods.ca

Ish Theilheimer has been Publisher of the leading, and oldest, independent Canadian online newsmagazine, StraightGoods.ca, since founding it in September 1999. He lives in Golden Lake, ON, in the Ottawa Valley.

I've criticized the quality of CBC news and programming here in the past. This week, the CBC deserves credit for its coverage of the debate over the use of Taser stun weapons. Its documentary A Stunning Debate is chilling in its account of how the company that makes the weapon, Taser International, uses aggressive lobbying and legal tactics to keep the public from being fully informed of potential dangers from the weapon's use.

The CBC does not mention, however, what HarperIndex.ca reported in January: the company hired Stephen Harper's close friend and advisor Ken Boessenkool as a lobbyist shortly after the Tasering and death of Robert Dziekanski on video at the Vancouver Airport.

More than 300 people have died shortly after being tasered but, CBC reports, Taser International claims that most of these deaths, including Dziekanski's, were not the direct result of being tasered.

Victoria journalist Rob Wipond preceded the CBC by several weeks with his own journalism on the subject, which he posted online in an article called The Facts about Tasers — and the Lies. His article is more detailed than the CBC's coverage, and also more courageous in light of Taser International's financial and legal clout. The company, Wipond reports, sent "legal demand letters" to 60 Canadian news outlets insisting on corrections to statements "blaming the Taser" for Dziekanski's death.

According to police and the company, "Tasers have been 'contributing factors' and 'linked' to deaths, but have virtually never caused a death," reports Wipond. "However, many medical studies and field safety reviews were either funded by Taser International, or involved police and people who've been on Taser International's payroll, and it's on such literature that many coroners base their conclusions about cause of death." Wipond cites specifics of staff members from Canadian coroners' offices who have accepted benefits from or been involved with the company.

Wipond reports that Taser International assists government and police officials being sued by Taser victims. And both he and CBC report that officials who raise questions about the safety of the weapons are targeted for legal discipline. "In 2005, Cook County's Medical Examiner declared that a police Tasering had in fact caused the death of a Chicago man. Taser International lobbied for a judicial review and its hired experts publicly attacked the coroner's credibility."

Many of the risks are downplayed through the lobby effort. "How deadly is even one Taser shock for people undergoing heart stress already? This at-risk group would include people taking most recreational drugs, withdrawing from drugs, taking psychiatric medications with heart-related side effects, experiencing high levels of adrenaline-stress, or who are just unhealthy. Basically, this at-risk group would include practically everyone most likely to be Tasered."

It is good for police to have non-lethal alternatives, but the public is not protected by corporate cover-ups abetted by complicit public officials. And if you think public officials such as coroners are incorruptible, you have not been living in Canada and haven't heard of Dr. Charles Smith.

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