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Friday, March 28, 2008

EDITORIAL: Trusting the use of tasers

March 28, 2008
Barrie Examiner

Whether Canadian police officers should have Tasers or not isn't the issue. The issue is how they are used. This question came to a head last year when a Polish man died after a Taser was used on him at Vancouver airport. A partial video of this incident convinced many Canadians that using a Taser was not required in this situation.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have since been criticized for removing details about Taser firings from their public reports - due to what has become an on-going controversy. Ontario Provincial Police say a report is filed every time a Taser is fired by an officer, but OPP won't release any statistics because they say it's an operational issue.

So the police, or at least the OPP and Mounties, aren't helping their cause by being secretive, even obstructive, about Taser use. And the public perception is that if it appears efforts are being made to hide information, then it is being hidden for a reason.

In this case, that reason would appear to be that the police don't want the public to know about how officers use their Tasers. But reality and perception are often different, and our police often have a way of keeping certain information close to the vest - even though releasing it would do them no harm.

It's also instructive to look at the Taser situation from a police perspective. When the Taser was introduced by police about four years ago, the explanation was that it would be used when a less-than-lethal dose of force is required. Police said (and presumably still say) that Tasers work better than pepper spray and/or police batons.

Suspects who are combative, emotionally disturbed or have been using alcohol or illegal drugs are examples of persons police may use Tasers against. The idea is that not only is using a Taser safer for police officers and any other nearby civilians during an incident, but safer for the suspect, as well.

A Taser fires two probes, attached by wires to a hand-held unit, which sends out a current that overpowers the body's normal electrical signals. This over-rides the central nervous system and causes an involuntary muscle contraction, causing the suspect to collapse.

Police say that in 95 per cent of cases, the suspect is incapacitated and on the ground in one second.

The Taser isn't supposed to cause heart problems or pacemaker failure, nerve or muscle damage. But there can be minor skin irritation, temporary blisters, redness or even minor bleeding, if the probes puncture skin. It is, however, a weapon for police. It is not unlike a gun, a baton or pepper spray. And as Barrie Police Chief Wayne Frechette says, "no weapon is without risk."

Like other police weapons, questions surround when it should be used. And it's an old question with police; just what is sufficient force during an arrest or to ensure public safety? There are always questions when a police weapon is used, especially a gun. And there always should be. If our police are to have weapons like Tasers, doesn't the public need to trust that officers will use them appropriately? Otherwise, take them away.

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