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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Taser proponents dominate inquiry

VANCOUVER -- The first of two provincial inquiries examining the use of Tasers by police began yesterday, and while it's far too early to predict what conclusions will be made at the end of Round One, one can see where things are headed.

"Stun weapons" are not the malevolent instruments some have learned to hate, suggested J. Patrick Reilly, a U.S. electrical engineer and Taser expert, and the first witness to appear before inquiry boss Thomas Braidwood.

Rather, they are tools that police can use to deal efficiently with "dangerous" or "belligerent" people. The use of electronic control weapons such as Tasers rarely results in death, Mr. Reilly noted. "The probability of that is very small."

It will be a refrain heard often from the inquiry floor in the next three weeks. Many of the 40 witnesses scheduled to speak are from the law enforcement business. Tasers are popular with police departments. Even some transit cops brandish them. In Vancouver, this is another source of controversy. Transit police have fired on 10 people, including "non-compliant" customers, since January, 2007, the Vancouver Sun recently reported.

None of the transit riders has filed an official complaint, but the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which will make a presentation here, has asked that people come forward and appear before Mr. Braidwood.

The inquiry is to have "no preconceived agenda…no preconceived notions" about the use of Tasers by police, commission counsel Art Vertlieb said yesterday. But in one of several interviews he gave before the inquiry launched yesterday, Mr. Braidwood said it "appears" that Vancouver transit police "didn't follow their own policy in the use of [Tasers]. I'm not involved in making any blame or anything but that would certainly red-flag it."

In another interview, Mr. Braidwood seemed mildly skeptical about how the RCMP was investigating the apprehension and accidental death of Robert Dziekanski. The Polish immigrant died last year during an incident involving the RCMP at Vancouver International Airport. Bewildered and frustrated after a long flight from Poland, Mr. Dziekanski acted aggressively at the airport. The Mounties were called. He was twice hit with Taser shots and was manhandled while writhing on the ground.

The event was captured by a passerby on video and eventually was broadcast around the world. Public reaction, Mr. Braidwood said in his opening remarks, "was immediate and intense."

Indeed, the tragedy moved B.C.'s provincial government to call the two inquiries. Mr. Braidwood was appointed to head them both. But the Dziekanski case, while the catalyst, will not be discussed in any detail at the present inquiry; that is for "later this year," Mr. Braidwood said. Witnesses at the second inquiry, an evidentiary proceeding, will be required to take an oath and avail themselves to cross-examination by lawyers.

It may not happen at all. A date for the second inquiry can't be set until the RCMP completes its own investigation of the Dziekanski death. If charges are recommended to the Crown, and the officers are sent to trial, then Mr. Braidwood's second inquiry could be delayed for years.

And while the RCMP has promised to participate in the inquiry now underway, only its complaints commission chairman, Paul Kennedy, has confirmed he will testify. But he's not free until June, which is after the public forums are to have ended. Mr. Braidwood has asked that the length of the first inquiry be extended. He's still waiting to hear back from the B.C. government, he said yesterday. For now, he'll have to be content hearing from technical experts and municipal police officers, as well as health officials.

Mr. Reilly, the first witness, described how research he con-ducted on the environmental impact of electrical production evolved to the study of electric shocks on people. The research was aimed at determining how much electrical shock a person could tolerate.

He eventually conducted research for the U.S. Army, examining the safety and efficacy of electronic weapons similar to Tasers. A report he wrote in 2004 was funded by the U.S. Department of Defence; he also wrote a book on the subject.

Mr. Reilly described how the devices work. When triggered, a compressed nitrogen charge inside a gun propels two barbed projectiles; these are attached to copper wires. The projectiles lodge into the target's skin. The operator of the weapon then releases "pulsed electric shocks" that are set five seconds apart. These travel the length of the wires and enter the target's body, causing him to lose musculature control. "Usually" the target will "cry out" in pain and "fall down," Mr. Reilly said.

The devices are not "benign," he conceded, but neither do they pose a serious risk of death if used properly. New research conducted since making his studies has simply "reinforced the opinion I had then," he said yesterday. He may have missed a study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal just last week, which concluded that "in some circumstances, stun guns may stimulate the heart while discharges are being applied … In our view, it is inappropriate to conclude that stun gun discharges cannot lead to adverse cardiac consequences in all real world settings."

The CMAJ authors are not among the 40 witnesses scheduled to speak at the inquiry.

Proceedings continue today with statements from the Victoria Police Department's controlled electronic weapons program co-ordinator, an emergency room physician and a prison warden. Tom Smith, founder and chairman of TASER International, Inc., is to appear next week.

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