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Monday, May 05, 2008

First witness at taser inquiry says risk of death from the weapon very small

May 5, 2008
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — An independent expert on the effects of the Taser on the body told a public inquiry into police use of the weapon on Monday that the risk of death or injury after being shocked is very small.

However, the man who has spent decades studying the impact of electricity on living things said he would never want to be "Tased" himself.

J. Patrick Reilly, an electrical engineer at Johns Hopkins University, was the opening witnesses at the inquiry in British Columbia. "There are hazards, but they are rare," Reilly summed up during his assessment. "You could not rule out the possibility of it effecting the heart and possibly even causing a fatal incident."

The death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver airport last October prompted the two-part provincial inquiry that began Monday. The first phase won't directly address Dziekanski's death, but inquiry commissioner Thomas Braidwood made it clear the death set off the need for an inquiry.

"I expect that all of you, and many people indeed around the world, have seen the video recording of the incident at the Vancouver International Airport," Braidwood, a former B.C. appeal court judge, said in his opening statement. The video shot by a bystander shows RCMP officers jolting Dziekanski within seconds of confronting him at the airport's international arrivals area. He was seen on TV and over the Internet around the world screaming and writhing in pain afterwards, while four officers held him down on the airport floor.

"Public reaction to the events at the airport was immediate and intense," Braidwood said.

The first phase of the inquiry will look into police use of the conducted energy weapons, how police are trained and the medical aspects of the Taser. Medical experts, police, the weapon's manufacturer and groups such as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, as well as a lawyer representing Dziekanski's mother, are among the scheduled witnesses.

The second phase of the inquiry will look specifically at Dziekanski's death.

Reilly spent several hours Monday explaining what the Taser can do to the body.

Most of the studies into the use of the weapons were conducted on pigs and Reilly admitted that further study is needed on how Taser use affects people, especially on someone who has taken drugs such as cocaine, on smaller people, on the elderly and on pregnant women.

He told the media after his presentation that compared to a bullet, the use of the Taser is a "no-brainer."

"I wouldn't want to be Tased myself and I wouldn't want a family member to be Tased," he said. "But I recognize among the arsenal of things police have to deal with, that this may be a useful tool."

Reilly said he has heard of cases of abuse of the weapon and said he hopes the inquiry will address the use of force and that the weapons should not be used in a cavalier way.

"Without question there are situations in which these things are abused."

Walter Kosteckyj, the lawyer for Dziekanski's mother, said it was clear even from Reilly's presentation that there was a lack of information from police services about how often and who they use the weapon on.

"So when we don't have that it's hard to really judge how safe the Taser is, what the effects are, who's died, who's been hurt, what's happened during the course of training. We don't have that information; (police) have been withholding it," he said outside the inquiry room.

Penny Priddy, a New Democrat member of a House of Commons public safety committee looking into Taser use, said the problem is that none of the dozen studies or inquiries looking at Taser use will mesh.

After travelling across the country speaking to police and the public she said coming together with some national rules seems paramount.

"The deeper I got into this, the more I worried about the system," she said. "We can study this from coast to coast to coast, but somebody has to have the power to make something happen." Braidwood has already asked B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal for an extension to his final report from the first phase, which he hopes to have ready by October.

The second phase of the inquiry - the one dealing specifically with Dziekanski's death - will only begin after the Crown has made a decision on whether charges will be laid in connection to his death.

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