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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Tasers need to be banned

February 9, 2008

Police across Canada should consider following New Brunswick's example when it comes to Tasers. Police chiefs in New Brunswick recently updated their policies on Tasers following a string of deaths involving the devices. It includes more training for officers and re-certification requirements at least once a year.

The policy also deals with mental health issues and how police can spot someone in the "excited delirium" condition. This mysterious condition is often cited in cases where someone has died after being hit by a Taser.

The only weakness of the new policy is it provides no guidelines for officers on when to use the device. It is up to the officer's judgment. The officer must decide if the person is in an "excited delirium" state before they shock. Besides not having the expertise, it stands to reason in an emotionally-charged situation, officers might not make the best judgments.

In a life or death situation, a lot is at stake.

I used to be a proponent of the Taser. Any alternative to deadly force, I thought, was a good thing. But, like others, I do not see them now as an alternative to deadly force as they can often be the instrument of deadly force. Amnesty International has already cited evidence of deaths in the United States related to Taser use. Without conclusive research, police should treat them as a firearm. It should not be drawn unless there is real threat of personal harm.

After the shameful and unnecessary death of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish national who died after being struck by a Taser by the RCMP at Vancouver International Airport, it has become obvious Tasers are being used too casually.

While opposing a ban, I find calls for a moratorium on the Taser pending further study to be compelling. What is certain is police all across Canada need further training and clearer guidelines.

The RCMP deserves credit for reviewing their policies on Tasers after the death of Dziekanski. Last November, the Canadian Press released a report documenting RCMP use of the device. The documents address hazards of the device and provide clues how to improve use.

In hundreds of cases, Tasers were used as a compliance tool and not as a means of last resort to defuse a major threat and, in the majority of cases, those subjected to Tasers were unarmed. While this makes sense, as most people stopped by the RCMP are not armed, it shows police are too quick to view Tasers as a way to restrain people in non-deadly situations. The device should not be an easy tool to keep low-risk prisoners, drunks and unruly people in line.

Police, predictably, have come to the Taser's defence. It is the best option to handle a dangerous situation without having to draw their weapon, they argue. But, without adequate study into deaths involving Tasers, it is evident for some people police have to confront, Tasers could prove to be as deadly as firearms.

Sadly, police are ill-equipped to know who these people are until after they wind up dead. Until they do, the device's use should be curbed.

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