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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The taser will be a permanent part of police arsenal

March 4, 2008
Henry Aubin, Montreal Gazette

The videotape of RCMP officers' gratuitous and fatal use of a Taser against a man in Vancouver last fall prompted a nationwide eruption of public horror over police forces' use of this weapon. In the wake of that incident, many law-enforcement officials have voiced concern and reviewed their use. So, problem over, right? Wrong.

Don't let officialdom's regretful tone fool you. Now that the Vancouver affair has blown over, Tasers are creeping back in much of the country.

Let's start with Quebec.

Although the incidents drew little attention because they were not videotaped, two men died in Quebec last year in the days after police shot them with the electric-shock device.

Quebec City police tasered a 32-year-old translator, Claudio Castagnetta, after they stopped him for loitering and, according to witnesses, he resisted being placed in a patrol car by making his body rigid.

In Montreal, police tasered 38-year-old Quilem Registre after they stopped him for erratic driving and, they say, he became aggressive.

Quebec's public security ministry, which oversees police forces across the province, issued a report on Tasers in mid-December. The ministry immediately accepted all the report's recommendations for restricting the police's use of Tasers, but those restrictions are slight.

For example, the province's earlier rules, apparently ignored by the officers who zapped Castagnetta with impunity, barred tasering people who were only "passively resisting" arrest. The new rules say officers can use the Taser on people whose "resistance represents a significant risk to the safety of the officer or anyone else." Despite the change in wording, the versions differ little in their practical application.

Indeed, the new rules also say officers should assess a person's "potential for violence." The word "potential" is a loophole giving officers enormous discretionary power. Officers might claim after the fact that even mild-mannered individuals had given them reason to believe they would become aggressive.

The report also cavalierly dismissed France's practice of clipping a camera (made by the Taser's manufacturer) onto the weapon and recording all the action in video and audio. The report says current training "conditions police to place their hands (on the Taser) in a way that would obstruct the camera's view."

The panel that wrote the report had 26 members and associates, of whom 25 are from the world of law enforcement -- that is, from the police departments, the police academy or the ministry. (The exception is a doctor employed by the province.) So much for taking into account the broad public interest.

Incidentally, Montreal could set tougher rules for its own force. So far, however, the current administration has given no sign of concern.

Elsewhere in Canada, it's much the same lethargy.

After the Vancouver incident, the Commission for Public Complaints against the RCMP made recommendations for changes. The RCMP, however, rejected a key one: The elevation of Tasers from the category of "intermediate weapon," a relatively humdrum status that includes pepper spray, to the serious category of "impact weapon."

If Tasers were in the latter group, they could be used only against people who are "combative" or otherwise dangerous.

In New Brunswick, police chiefs ordered a review of Taser use, and have concluded no substantive changes are needed.

As for Toronto, its police chief is certainly demanding change -- but it's not in the direction that reformers would like. He wants to buy 500 additional Tasers.

The devices are supposed to be substitutes for firearms. Too often they are substitutes for talk.

In Montreal, a coalition of critics that includes two councillors from the city's ruling party -- Warren Allmand and Marvin Rotrand -- is asking to suspend the use of Tasers until impartial research is in on how these 50,000-volt guns affect people with various health problems or who are high on drugs.

Twenty people in Canada have died after being tasered, says Amnesty. If governments require the pharmaceutical industry to test its wares for health effects before selling them, why not ask the same of Taser International?

The company is poised to launch later this year a new model that will make the current one look like a peashooter. The current handgun-style model zaps people as far away as eight metres. The new model is a 12-gauge shotgun with a range of 30 metres.

Unless politicians suddenly wake up, we ain't seen nothing yet.

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