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Friday, April 04, 2008

Overwhelmed cops rush to taser, watchdog says

April 4, 2008
Glenn Bohn, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER - The B.C. Civil Liberties Association says police officers are turning to high-voltage Taser guns because police departments are overwhelmed by problems with mentally ill people on the streets.

"The reality is that police are, in fact, put on the front lines to respond to these individuals," executive director Murray Mollard told a parliamentary committee Friday in Richmond. "No one else will. And we demand a heck of a lot of our police. That's why they deserve our respect and support."

Mollard pointed to a Vancouver police report, Lost in Transition, which reported that about 30 per cent of all city-wide calls to police involve people whom officers believe are suffering from poor mental health.

The February report pointed to a troubling trend: in 1999, there were 360 incidents when individuals were arrested in Vancouver under provisions of the Mental Health Act; last year, there were 1,744.

Mollard said beat cops in the Downtown Eastside used to have the time to talk to people and de-escalate potentially violent situations without using a Taser or gun.

"Are we demanding too much from our police, such that we are providing an incentive for them to respond too quickly and in ways that they use technology to get around age-old technologies to get around problems such as basic communication?" he said.

Mollard was one of the speakers at a House of Commons public safety and security committee inquiry into the use of Tasers in Canada. The committee held its second and last day of hearings Friday at Vancouver International Airport, where last October four RCMP officers responded to a report about a "very belligerent" passenger who threw a computer screen and terminal on the floor. Police zapped Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski with a Taser. His death was captured by a traveller's video camera and later posted on the Web, triggering expressions of shock and condemnation from around the world.

Online U.S. retailers are selling "not for export" Tasers, starting at $400 US.

The device is manufactured by Taser International Inc., an Arizona-based company that sells the weapon around the world, including to the RCMP and many municipal police departments in Canada.

More than 11,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies have Tasers. According to Amnesty International USA, more than 290 people have died in the U.S. after being Tasered.

This week, Taser International stocks climbed five per cent after it signed a deal to sell Tasers to consumers at Sports Authority, which has more than 200 stores in the U.S.

Lawyer Cameron Ward, who said Tasers are also being sold like Tupperware at events in private homes in the U.S., said he respects the dangerous work that police do.

"I don't pretend to minimize the risk of harm," Ward told the committee. "I simply say this: Before the Star Trek-type Taser 50,000-volt weapon came on the scene, police officers were able to subdue people who needed medical attention, without having 336 of them [worldwide] drop dead, inexplicably. We have to be, I think, wary, from a public safety standpoint, of sophisticated new technological solutions to old problems."

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