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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Medical journal calls for independent studies on Taser safety

May 1, 2008
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Potential health risks of Taser stun guns must be independently studied, says the latest Canadian Medical Association Journal in a sardonic editorial that blasts the manufacturer for intimidation tactics.

Taser International funds much of the research it cites to support Taser safety while challenging and sometimes suing those who raise concerns, it says.

"Tasers are perfectly safe and have never, ever killed anyone," writes Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, an assistant professor, researcher and specialist in respirology at the Toronto Western Hospital.

"We know this because Taser International . . . says so, claiming 'the Taser . . . cannot stop the heart.' And Taser International is an honourable and, for most of its existence, very profitable company.

"So honourable, in fact, that they have sponsored research to prove the Taser's safety," he continues. "Just about all the research, as it turns out. Moreover, they pay for experts to travel across North America and spread the good news about how safe Tasers are and correct any misconceptions that might arise from events like deaths of suspects in police custody or immigrants in Vancouver's airport."

Stun guns are now the subject of several continuing or pending inquiries across Canada. The weapons came under intense scrutiny last fall when amateur video of the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport was released, to public outrage.

No comment from Taser International was immediately available. It has vigorously defended its devices in several lawsuits and stresses that the weapon has never been directly blamed for a death. It has, however, been cited repeatedly as a contributing factor.

Especially at issue is the unknown effect of zapping severely agitated suspects with up to 50,000 volts. The sudden deaths of several people who were in a heart-pounding state before being Tasered have been explained using the contentious, non-medically recognized term "excited delirium."

"It's troubling that it's trotted out so often as an explanation for these events given the uncertainty around it," Stanbrook said in an interview. Taser advocates, along with an RCMP training manual, go so far as to suggest it might be best to zap people in that condition so they may be quickly subdued and medically treated, he added.

"It seems that these deaths due to excited delirium only occur in the context of being confronted with a law-enforcement officer with or without a Taser. Delirium in general is a very common condition - we see it all the time in hospitals.

"It is rare if ever that people who are delirious in hospitals have sudden death. So this has really come out of nowhere as something that suddenly kills people and requires rapid intervention."

To recommend the Taser as a go-to management tool in such situations "seems to us bordering on the absurd," Stanbrook said."Another perspective . . . is this is exactly the situation in which someone is at risk of dying from the Taser."

He says federally funded, independent research is badly needed to get to the bottom of such questions. At the very least, there should be an unbiased review of police-confrontation deaths before and after Tasers were introduced to assess net harm or benefit.

More than 300 people in North America, including 20 in Canada, have died soon after being Tasered. The electronic guns are overwhelmingly popular with police, who say they avoid injuries to suspects and officers and are certainly a better option than firearms.

Amnesty International and other critics have called for a moratorium pending an independent and comprehensive safety review. They say "Taser creep" has led to the jolting of unarmed suspects as a matter of handy compliance rather than to defuse major threats.

A Canadian Press analysis of 563 Taser incidents reported by the RCMP between 2002 and 2005 revealed that more than 79 per cent of suspects were unarmed.

The reports also suggested a pattern of use by the Mounties as a quick means to keep relatively low-risk prisoners, drunks and unruly suspects in line. More recent reports released by the RCMP have been heavily censored to remove key details such as exact dates and injuries linked to the stun guns.

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