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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Reassure me I won't be tasered

April 3, 2008
Joey Slinger, Toronto Star

The Canadian Press reports that according to Insp. Troy Lightfoot, an RCMP Taser expert, "the majority of cases he's studied have shown Tasers were used appropriately."

The Star quotes Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash as saying that while the city's officers have clear guidelines on Taser use, people are entitled to ask whether the policies and procedures are being followed. "The answer is overwhelmingly – yes."

They apparently think we should find what they say reassuring. Considering how frequently Tasers are used, however, "majority" and "overwhelmingly" leave an awful lot of room in which people – respectful, law-abiding citizens – are entitled to feel scared spitless.

And unless Toronto's Chief Bill Blair and his force can come up with evidence that officers use the weapon more responsibly than it sometimes appears (and our perceptions definitely count here), they are going to erode the one thing that is absolutely – absolutely – essential to their operations: our trust.

Based on a variety of incidents, the following scenario becomes appallingly possible.

The cop says I've been speeding.

To show how much I disagree, I throw my hands skyward and say something like "Jesus Christ Almighty!"

As I lower my arms, I step toward the officer so we can speak in normal tones. He concludes that I'm about to attack him, pulls his Taser, and zaps me.

The cop's action is in keeping with the policies and procedures of the Toronto department. He possessed, in the words Superior Court of Ontario Justice David Brown used in a recent case, "the honest subjective belief that he was about to be assaulted."

(The judge heard not only that the department approves using Tasers in "assaultive" situations, but that what's "assaultive" is a matter of the officer's professional opinion. Wouldn't it take a pretty dopey cop not to argue successfully that it looked like I was going to hammer him?)

You need to understand that, more than anything else, a cop wants to finish his, or her, shift safely and go home and have dinner and watch CSI the same as everybody else. With the Taser, they've been given a useful, convenient (relatively safe?) tool that makes sure they won't come to any harm at all, that their hair won't even get mussed. Why take chances?

When we believe a cop has misunderstood the circumstances and is treating us unfairly, what will we do if we're afraid he'll zap us for speaking up for ourselves?

Are we going to respect an officer as an employee of the democratic system we support because he is an employee of the system, and we support it? Or are we going to respect him because we're terrified of what he'll do to us if he simply decides we're too twitchy?

The RCMP's Lightfoot says, "I can tell you there are many accountability systems in place with regards to police actions. You have the courts, you have coroners' inquests, you have a multitude of oversight bodies. There is a complaints process that can be followed."

We all know what complaining about the Mounties gets you. And try not to think about those coroners' inquests.

Just think about accountability. Accountability comes after the fact!

I don't want accountability. I want assurance ahead of time. I want a guarantee – and it's not a perfect world, but at least as much as the guarantee that I won't get drilled with a 9-mm round from the cop's Glock – that I won't get Tasered for acting the way a law-abiding human being might understandably act.

As things stand, I'm not confident I have that guarantee. If you don't feel just as vulnerable, you're fooling yourself.

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