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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Devastating testimony has changed likely outcome of the taser inquiry

May 15, 2008
Alan Ferguson, Special to The Province

Ever since the day we saw Robert Dziekanski writhing in agony on the floor at YVR, British Columbians have suspected that the Taser may not be quite the benign police tool it's cracked up to be.

And when we heard last week that Mounties had zapped a penknife-waving, 82-year-old heart patient in his Kamloops hospital bed, it was clear that, whatever faults the Taser might have, they are being exacerbated by police stupidity in its deployment.

Some commentators believe the argument over the Taser is lost; that its place in the police armoury is secure and that those of us who deplore the spectacle of bedridden geriatrics roiling from a 50,000-volt blast should just suck it up.

It's true that senior police officers have filled the airwaves and the newspapers with their self-confident conclusions about the safety of the weapon.

It's odd though, that while on the one hand they're so damn sure about their case, they've gone to such lengths to conceal what they're up to.

Remember how the Mounties in Ottawa released, under media pressure, "details" of incidents in which the Taser was deployed -- only the "details" were blacked out.

In the Dziekanski case, we were assured police procedures where followed, even though evidence to the contrary was before our eyes.

We've been treated to the absurdity of hearing police declare they issued a verbal warning to Dziekanski, in English, when they had been told he didn't know a word of the language. And we have allowed police, and other Taser advocates, to invent a new category of sickness as yet unknown to modern medicine: "Excited delirium."

People are not idiots. We know the cops have a tough job to do. If there are ways to make life safer for them, and us, we're prepared to give them a try.

But that's only on two conditions:

First, that a particular police weapon isn't going to kill someone by mistake. And, second, that the people using it aren't going to plug some poor victim recuperating from bypass surgery.

But we've grown uncomfortably aware that neither of these conditions has been met in the case of the Taser.

Anyone who thinks otherwise should study the testimony given the Braidwood inquiry this week by veteran police psychologist Michael Webster, who cited instances where use of the Taser by police had been, in his view, "ridiculously inappropriate."

He dismissed "excited delirium" as a "mythical" condition imagined by the makers of the weapon. And he submitted the alarming proposition that "well-meaning, but psychologically unsophisticated" police forces in Canada had been "brainwashed" into believing everything Taser International told them.

Webster, remember, is an insider. He teaches crisis-management skills to Vancouver police and at the Canadian Police College.

I believe his devastating testimony has dramatically changed the likely outcome of this inquiry. And a damned good thing if it does.

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