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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Police need to know tasers can kill: MDs

May 21, 2008
Suzanne Fournier, The Province

Tasers can cause fatal cardiac arrest and are especially dangerous if the person being Tasered is agitated, stressed, dehydrated, exhausted or has heart disease, two top Vancouver heart specialists warned yesterday.

The Taser may be particularly dangerous if a dart hits close to a person's heart and is hazardous to any of the more than 35,000 British Columbians who have pacemakers or implanted defibrillators, the doctors told the Braidwood Inquiry into Taser use.

Police forces need to know the risks of using the Taser and be fully-trained in resuscitating heart-attack victims, the specialists said.

Dr. Michael Janusz, a heart surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital and a professor at the University of B.C., warned the inquiry that "Tasers must be regarded as being capable of causing cardiac arrest."

The Taser might be safer than a gun or club, said Janusz, but it can cause cardiac arrest and police should be "cognizant of this hazard. This will require a 'mindset' of providing immediate, thorough and meticulous care of critically-injured persons."

Janusz told commissioner Tom Braidwood, a retired B.C. judge, that the risk of dying after being Tasered is similar to the chances of dying during or after major heart surgery.

Janusz cited San Francisco cardiologist Dr. Zian Tseng's findings of about "1.4 per cent mortality for individuals subdued by police using a Taser, [which] is similar to the mortality risk of a coronary-artery bypass operation."

Dr. Charles Kerr, a cardiac electrophysiologist at St. Paul's and a UBC professor, warned that "the perception one gets is that the police officers do not seem to recognize that situations in which a Taser is used could lead to death."

Kerr said there may be a place in policing for the Taser and it is "better than a bullet," but he said it is essential that police understand "there is a potential for harm."

Kerr said although the possibility is low, it appears that even one dart of the dual-dart weapon hitting near the heart could trigger ventricular fibrillation, in which
the heart beats wildly and then stops.

People with "psychiatric disturbance" or who are on drugs are even more at risk, said Kerr.

Even "the pain inflicted by the Taser discharge" and the "extremely agitated state of most people receiving a Taser shock" increases the likelihood of ventricular fibrillation, he said.

As if to underscore the medical specialists' cause for concern, New Westminster police Staff-Sgt. Joe Spindor said later that most Taser training in B.C. is done by the manufacturer or by others like him who have been trained by Taser International.

"They stated the Taser is safe," said Spindor, explaining he was not told it could cause cardiac arrest.

Spindor said police in B.C. do not yet collect or share data on Taser use or its consequences.

Police do not carry defibrillators, said Spindor, who said the New Westminster police have used the Taser without incident since 2000.

Braidwood is inquiring into Taser use by municipal police, sheriffs and corrections officers.

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