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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

EDITORIAL: Impose protocols for use of tasers

May 14, 2008
Times Colonist (Victoria, BC)

Even those who support police use of Tasers should recognize that current policies and controls are inadequate, failing even to acknowledge the real risks involved anytime the stun guns are fired.

The case of Frank Lasser should end any argument. Lasser is 82 and frail. He's had bypass surgery and needs oxygen at all times. He becomes delusional when he can't breathe properly. That apparently happened after he was admitted to hospital in Kamloops with pneumonia this month. At 5:30 a.m., he began to threaten staff and pulled out a pocket knife with a three-inch blade.

They called the RCMP. When Lasser wouldn't drop the knife, officers zapped him three times with a Taser as he lay in his hospital bed. They pressed the stun gun against his stomach. The RCMP maintains this was the only safe way to handle a potentially dangerous situation.

But, as Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh testified at a provincial inquiry into Taser use this week, this was not the use proposed when Tasers were introduced in B.C. in 2000.

Dosanjh, who as attorney general approved the use of the weapons after a pilot project in Victoria, said he was told the devices were completely safe. That appears to be untrue. Seven people have died in B.C. after being zapped with the stun guns, 300 in North America. Recent research suggests the devices affect the heart.

And police said the Taser would be used in "assaultive and combative situations, where a person is a danger to others," Dosanjh told a B.C. inquiry into the weapon's use.

When Victoria police described their six-month trial, those were the kind of cases they cited. Tasers were used to subdue a naked, crazed man who attacked officers with a 10-inch spike and deer antlers to disarm another man who was in the act of driving a dagger into his own chest, they reported.

But since 2000, Tasers have been increasingly used as a quick method to control the merely difficult. Police insist there is no risk in using the devices and operate accordingly.

The government's current guidelines, brought in after a Taser review by the Police Complaints Commissioner in 2005, say the devices should not be used unless people are actively resisting police. It's not enough that they're ignoring commands, gesturing wildly or shouting.

But the guidelines, and other recommendations in the report, have been largely ignored. Vancouver's transit police are authorized to Taser anyone who is non-compliant, even fare evaders.

And the RCMP, which provides policing for more than 70 per cent of British Columbians, doesn't accept the right of the provincial government to set any guidelines for Taser use.

Tasers should have a place in the police arsenal. They can increase the safety of both offenders and officers, offering an alternative to pepper spray or clubs in some situations.

But they carry risks, which police refuse to acknowledge.

And Taser use in B.C. is, in a literal sense, out of control. Government use-of-force rules are dismissed by the RCMP and widely ignored by other forces.

That should not be allowed to continue. If the province and police can't agree on an effective, accepted protocol for Taser use, the only solution left would be a return to the ban that existed until 2000.

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