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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tasers safer than police batons, guns, inquiry told

May 13, 2008
Brian Hutchinson, National Post
Jason Payne, For Canwest News Service

VANCOUVER - Tom Smith is the smiling Dapper Dan from Scottsdale, Ariz., who makes and markets Tasers, and who must therefore leave his office and defend them. Not a pleasant task, one might think; these days, the conducted energy weapon is the object of scorn and fear.

Were they still alive, gunsmiths Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson would face less criticism, fewer accusations about their gear. But Mr. Smith of Taser fame was barely tested yesterday, at a provincial inquiry examining the use of his products in British Columbia.

The young chairman of Taser International Inc. cruised through a 55-minute presentation -- one, he admitted afterwards, that he delivers a lot, dozens of times a year in fact.

He's got it down pat and it showed. He spoke so rapidly and with such force that the commissioner of the inquiry, retired judge Thomas Braidwood, had to interject and suggest he slow down.

"This is not an endurance competition," he said.

Flashing statistics and bar graphs on to a projection screen, Mr. Smith insisted that Tasers are safer than such other police tools as batons, pepper spray and firearms, when it comes to subduing and apprehending criminal suspects and violent individuals.

College students are as likely to receive an injury playing basketball, as is a person to receive an injury from a Taser, the company chairman maintained.

His computer and video-assisted demonstration made the point, over and over, that Tasers are not the evil devices the public has come to loathe, and which reporters have to come rely upon as an endless source of hair-raising copy.

Placed strategically on Mr. Smith's left was a 20-centimetre-thick binder filled with independent scientific studies. These, he said, lend credence to his company's assertion that Tasers, while not harmless, are not as dangerous as people might think.

It's a fact that the proper use of Tasers rarely results in death, or even injury. That's why so many police agencies -- 12,500 from more than 40 countries at last count -- have bought the devices, Mr. Smith said. Sales are booming. Last year, its best ever, Taser International had revenues of $100.7-million. This year, sales are on a record-breaking pace.

Meanwhile, the lawsuits pile up. Most are discarded. "Six more product-liability suits were dismissed during the first quarter, representing a total of 67 wrongful death or injury suits that have been dismissed or judgment entered in favour of the Company through the first quarter," Taser International noted in a recent securities filing.

Born on a U. S. air force base in 1967, Mr. Smith was, growing up, a Star Wars and Star Trek geek. He wondered how techno-gizmos like "phasers" might be deployed in violent confrontations. His mother, he said yesterday, relied on a Doberman pinscher guard dog for protection; he looked to technology instead.

He formed Taser International with his brother in 1993, after buying the technology from its inventor. A number of improvements have been made since the clunky Tasertron was introduced. That first model was "more of a pain compliance device," Mr. Smith told the inquiry. Later models, including today's best-selling Taser X-26, are far better at disabling targets, temporarily turning their musculature to jelly.

Contrary to testimony delivered at the inquiry on Friday, there is no credible evidence that the electric jolt from a Taser can affect the human heart, Mr. Smith said. To emphasize the point, he pulled out the power source that his products rely upon to shoot 50,000 volts into a target. It's just a simple camera battery, he noted.

Pepper spray and police batons can be far more sinister than the X-26, Mr. Smith said. He played a few video clips to punch home the point. In one five-year-old scene, Nathaniel Jones, a black man in Cincinnati, is pummelled to death by stick-wielding police officers.

The inquiry audience was then shown the brighter side of police work involving Tasers. Mr. Smith pressed a button on his laptop. Up popped the image of "a mental subject" with knives in both hands, receiving a good Tasering by police inside a bathroom. The man was incapacitated, handcuffed and "returned to a mental hospital" with no harm inflicted, apparently.

Not shown during Mr. Smith's info-packed session was the video still on every-one's mind-- the one made with a cellphone last autumn at Vancouver International Airport. It led to this inquiry, before Commissioner Braidwood, and shows an agitated Polish immigrant named Robert Dziekanski being Tasered by RCMP officers. He soon died in their custody, after being manhandled. His death, while obviously accidental, sparked a huge outcry.

But the present inquiry is not tasked with examining the Dziekanski incident and death; that is to come later, at a second inquiry headed by Mr. Braidwood.

That left Mr. Smith free to complete his polished take on Taser use. After answering a few mild-mannered questions from Mr. Braidwood and from the inquiry's appointed counsel (Q: Are short people more in danger of getting hurt than others? A: Um, no), he walked from the inquiry room unscathed.

The inquiry next heard from Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, who, as B. C.'s attorney-general in 2000, approved the use of Tasers by police in this province. He was misinformed, he said yesterday, about their risks, and under what circumstances they might be deployed.

"One makes decisions based on the information one gets," he shrugged.

The Taser decision is one he now regrets. The inquiry continues today.

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