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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Taser inquiry hears about lack of stats on weapon's use and no common policy

May 24, 2008
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — An inquiry into Taser use heard from police, academics, scientists and lawyers with a common theme emerging for retired judge Thomas Braidwood to address in his report - the lack of statistics on Taser use, limited knowledge of their effects and an absence of a common policy on their deployment.

The president of the B.C. Association of Municipal Police Chiefs summed up for Braidwood what is almost certainly to be addressed in one of his recommendations: the absence of a uniform policy among municipal police forces in British Columbia on the use of the Taser.

Bob Rich, who is also deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department, said steps are being taken to address that, but that currently policies on the use of force are left to each municipal department.

"The lack of clarity, the lack of a provincial policy, and different opinions is something that has made it more difficult and I look forward to the process of making it clear for our officers what we actually expect them to do," Rich told the inquiry during the second week of its three-week duration.

The inquiry's first of two phases concluded Friday, with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association also noting the lack of police governance regulation.

"The (association) submits that there has been an utter failure, indeed an abdication, of government control over the evaluation, approval and regulation of Taser use by police forces in B.C. and Canada," association executive director Murray Mollard said in the inquiry's final submission.

Braidwood will also have to deal with a multitude of calls for a moratorium on Taser use until its effects are better understood.

The mother of deceased would-be Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski made a tearful plea for a moratorium during her appearance at the inquiry.

Its first phase examined the use of Tasers in a general sense. The second phase, which has not yet been scheduled, will look at the stun gun's use in connection with Dziekanski's death last fall at the Vancouver airport.

Dziekanski died after RCMP stunned him twice with a Taser after they were summoned by airport security.

A call for a moratorium also came from the civil liberties association and other group.

Although the inquiry's terms of reference were directed only at municipal forces in B.C., the RCMP made a submission and also noted the lack of standardized training procedures.

RCMP training, the inquiry also heard, teaches officers that the weapon is "not without risk" but does not mention that its use might result in cardiac arrest and death.

Another police spokesman also told Braidwood that trainees are told the Taser is not without risk but that they're not told a jolt may cause death.

Police presenters and others told the inquiry that the training conducted by police forces is supplied by the manufacturer, Taser International, whose position is that the Taser does not cause death.

The inquiry had no subpoena powers and could do nothing when the Metro Vancouver transit police declined to show up.

They were eventually ordered to give a submission by the province's solicitor general, and the much-maligned force informed the inquiry that it had changed its Taser policy.

The transit force altered its stun gun policy after it was revealed some fare-evading transit users had been zapped. The initial policy on Taser indicated the weapon could be used on "non compliant" transit users but transit force deputy chief Ken Allen said there were problems with that term. The transit police board later approved the removal of non compliance and replaced it with "actively resistant."

The RCMP also changed their wording on Taser use to "actively resistant" from "combative behaviour."

Police vehemently defended the use of the weapon, saying it reduces injuries to officers and suspects and that in most circumstances is far preferable to a bullet.

Even a heart surgeon and cardiologist who told the inquiry that a Taser jolt can lead to cardiac arrest in some cases agreed that the weapon is preferable to lethal force.

The bluntest submission at the inquiry came from a psychologist and former RCMP member who now works as a consultant to police forces on crisis management.

Mike Webster told the commission that he was embarrassed to be associated with police who use Tasers on "sick old men" and "confused immigrants." His first reference was to a recent incident involving an elderly Kamloops man who was laying in his hospital bed and hit with the stun gun after he became delirious and pulled a pen knife from his pocket. The second reference was to Dziekanski, who'd wandered around the secure arrivals area of the airport for hours while his mother waited for him nearby, unable to get any information about her son.

Webster also tore a strip off Taser International, the weapon maker, for what he suggested was the "brainwashing" of police organizations. The company, he said, has conducted a "brilliant marketing scheme and created a lucrative business" based on selling Tasers as a necessary tool when confronted with a disorder known as "excited delirium."

But "excited delirium" as a medical condition is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, he said, an opinion that was also reiterated by several medical experts.

Braidwood will have to deal with a plethora of confusing and incomplete data and information on how widespread is the Taser's use and what connection, if any, it has to a sudden death after its application.

Dr. Zian Tseng, a San Francisco cardiologist and electrophysiologist, said any normal, healthy person could die from a jolt of the conducted energy weapon if the shock was given in the right area of the chest and during the vulnerable point in the beating of the heart.

He said the risk of death is far greater if there is adrenaline or illicit drugs coursing through the body or if the person has a history of heart or other medical issues - an opinion that was also shared to varying degrees by other medical experts.

Perhaps the inquiry's star presenter - and the man who attracted the largest attendance - was the chairman of Taser International, Tom Smith.

Smith conceded his product is not risk free, is designed to incapacitate and the term "non lethal" does not mean safe. But he also wanted the inquiry to be clear that there's a big distinction between a Taser jolt being the cause of a death and it being a contributing factor. "I would never say never," he replied when commission counsel Art Vertlieb asked if a jolt could result in a death.

Vertlieb told the inquiry statistics indicate more than 300 people - including about 20 in Canada - have had Taser use noted as a contributing factor in their deaths.

Smith said 350,000 police officers carry the weapons in 40 countries.

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