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Friday, May 23, 2008

Public sold a phony story on taser safety, use

May 21, 2008
PAUL WILLCOCKS, Special to The [Prince George] Citizen

VICTORIA -- Two things have jumped out from the provincial inquiry into Taser use.

First, the public has been misled at best, lied to at worst, about the safety of Tasers and the way they would be used.

And second, that civilian oversight of police is a myth in B.C. Government's claims that it sets policy on Taser use and most other police activities are empty.

I was an advocate for Tasers after a pilot project here in Victoria in 1999. They were pitched as a great tool that could make things safer for police and public.

At the end of a six-month trial, one of the officers enthusiastically cited examples from the nine times the Taser was used zap someone.

One case involved a naked, crazed man coming at officers with a long metal spike and deer antlers. If the Taser hadn't been available, he might have been shot. Another involved a deranged man determined to leap up the window in his 12th-floor apartment. Police tasered him in the nick of time. (The officer who provided the examples and pushed to have the weapon approved received stock options from Taser International two years later for his work on a holster design.)

The police convinced me the weapon offered a safer alternative than other options in some cases. The claims were always about taking down armed attackers or dealing at a safe distance with suicidal or dangerous people, something not possible with pepper spray.

More importantly, they convinced then attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh. But Dosanjh told the inquiry this month he was misled about the way police would use Tasers.

Kevin Begg, assistant deputy minister in the Solicitor General's Ministry, referred to "slippage" in Taser use. Instead of taking the time to de-escalate a situation, police are just zapping people who don't co-operate. Begg isn't an armchair quarterback; he was an RCMP officer for 23 years. And he, too, was an initial supporter, describing the Taser as "a very valuable alternative to shooting someone with a firearm" when the pilot project was launched.

But that's now how the Taser has been used. The provincial inquiry was ordered after the death of Robert Dzienkanski at Vancouver's airport. Video evidence showed police made no effort to defuse the situation.

Earlier this month police zapped an 82-year-old man, who needs oxygen just to walk, as he lay in a Kamloops hospital bed. He was delusional because he couldn't catch his breath and refused to drop a knife with a three-inch blade. But he wasn't enough of a danger to prevent an RCMP officer from approaching close enough to press the Taser against his stomach and zap him three times.

And Vancouver's transit police have tasered people, including fare evaders, for being "non-compliant." That policy, changed last week, highlights the underlying problem.

As the death toll mounted, B.C.'s Police Complaints Commissioner did a review of Taser use and recommended clear limits. People had to be "actively resisting" officers before they could be hit with the electric charge. The Solicitor General's Ministry claimed the new policy was in place. But all it did was send a one-page letter to police chiefs. As the transit police confirmed, the policy was widely and blatantly ignored. (Transit police even ignored a call to testify at the public inquiry until Solicitor General John van Dongen ordered the force to appear.)

Anyway, the policy is irrelevant for most British Columbians. About 70 per cent of them are policed by some 8,000 RCMP officers. The force does not accept any civilian oversight and refuses to allow the provincial government to set policies.

The Taser is still a potentially valuable tool. But seven people have died in B.C. after being the weapon was used on them; more than 300 in North America. Police continue to insist there is no risk, and use it accordingly. Many continue to reject the notion of civilian control or oversight.

It's a dangerous combination.

Footnote: Taser International continues to insist the only risk from using the weapon is that the victim might fall and be injured and tells police to use it on that basis. This week, two cardiologists told the inquiry the stun guns could "almost certainly" cause heart attacks.

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