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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More taser scrutiny 'great,' stun gun manufacturer says

May 13, 2008
IAN BAILEY, Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — The chairman of Taser International's board is welcoming independent study of his company's devices, but suggests there is already a fair balance of independent research and his company's sponsored reviews of the stun guns.

Tom Smith's comments were made yesterday in response to recent suggestions by the Canadian Medical Association Journal that the Arizona-based company was relying on its own sponsored research to prove its devices are safe.

Mr. Smith, in Vancouver to testify before the provincial Braidwood inquiry into taser use, noted that only about 20 per cent of taser studies have been sponsored by his company, which produced the device used by police on Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski in an Oct. 14 incident that prompted the Braidwood probe and other continuing inquiries.

But Mr. Smith said, in his comments before the hearing and to reporters outside, that his company has had no hand in the remaining research, which allows for a broader perspective.

"I encourage studies. We think it's great. And we're seeing more of them done, and there are a lot being done and there are a lot being done independent of us, and I think it again goes back to this being the most studied non-lethal technology available today in the world," said Mr. Smith, who co-founded Taser International with his brother, Rick.

"I would certainly encourage more independent studies. Less than 20 per cent of them out there have been funded by us. That means 80 per cent have been done independent of our company, including here in Canada."

Mr. Smith referred to a total 129 studies of tasers.

In an editorial published a few weeks ago, the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggested Taser International has sponsored "just about all the research" to "prove the taser's safety." It's author, Matthew Stanbrook, an assistant professor, researcher and specialist in respirology at Toronto Western Hospital, called for federally funded, independent research to answer many questions related to the safety of tasers.

Those questions have become a pressing concern since Mr. Dziekanski died at Vancouver International Airport after being tasered during a confrontation with four Mounties, who were called to the scene after he began acting erratically.

The exact cause of the death of the 40-year-old man has not yet been released, but questions about police use of tasers have prompted a number of reviews.

Mr. Smith also acknowledged that tasers are not foolproof, and that there is a risk of death associated with them. However, he framed that chance more around circumstantial factors than anything inherent in the devices.

"They are not risk free. They do cause incapacitation. They can cause somebody to fall to the ground," he said.

"We cover the general warnings of possible outcomes that can be the result of being exposed to a taser, so in a general sense, they are safe, but they are not without risk," he told the inquiry.

Pressed further on whether death is the possible outcome of a taser jolt, Mr. Smith said: "I would never say never. It's certainly a possibility of any interaction that includes confrontation."

Reminded that tasers have been cited as a contributing cause of the deaths of 300 people - including 20 in Canada - Mr. Smith said there is a distinction between contributing and an actual cause of death.

Former B.C. attorney-general Ujjal Dosanjh, also appearing before the inquiry, said he was assured tasers were an appropriate idea when he authorized their use in B.C. in 2000.

He said staff told him the devices were backed by solid research, were safe and would be placed high up on the continuum of use-of-force options.

"All three propositions have turned out not to be true," he said.

"Am I disappointed? Yes. Absolutely disappointed because when you are in the public realm ... making these kinds of decisions, you depend on people coming in, giving you advice based on research they have conducted. Should there have been more research? Absolutely. Did I know that at the time? No."

Mr. Dosanjh, now a Liberal MP and public safety critic, is calling for more research on tasers, and better guidelines on their use. He said there should be a moratorium if these suggestions are not acted on.

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