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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Think inquiry will end taser use? Not likely

May 10, 2008
GARY MASON, Globe and Mail

Prediction: Years after retired judge Thomas Braidwood has wrapped up his current inquiry into the use of tasers, the controversial weapon will still be in the holsters of police officers all over Canada and being blamed in people's deaths.

Why do I say that? Because after listening to a week of testimony at Mr. Braidwood's public inquisition in Vancouver, it's hard to imagine him not lining up behind Paul Kennedy, chairman of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, who has already looked into this matter and determined there is a continuing role for the taser to play in law enforcement.

Albeit, a more restricted one.

Mr. Braidwood is a bright man who, as a top judge in B.C. until his retirement in 2005, handled some of the most complex and controversial cases in recent years. In many ways, he was the perfect person to head an inquiry into a matter so socially charged. But I'm already beginning to wonder what he's going to tell us that we don't already know.

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So far, the inquiry has heard independent experts on the effects of electricity on people say that the chances of a taser causing death are small but not impossible. And that until far more research is done in this area we are, to some extent, "groping in an environment where we don't have all the facts," as one of the experts told the inquiry.

We already knew both those things.

The inquiry also heard from a former Mountie, now a top bureaucrat in the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, who said RCMP officers are reaching for their tasers too quickly, before using techniques to de-escalate confrontations. Like we needed anyone to tell us that. We've all seen the video a million times now of the RCMP tasering Robert Dziekanski.

We heard that the taser was originally approved for use on suspects who were violently aggressive or armed, but that justification for firing the gun has since "slipped" down the use-of-force continuum. Now it's being used to help take down those even mildly resisting arrest.

We knew that too.

And we also heard from family members upset that a loved one was tasered who shouldn't have been.

There have been lots of those people on the news in recent months too.

So what, then, is the point of this probe? Will it break new ground? Unveil shattering new secrets about the instrument that have been rattling around the closets at Taser International? I don't think so.

This inquiry was called mostly to do one thing: quell the angry masses. If there had been no video of Mr. Dziekanski's death after being tasered by the RCMP, there would no inquiry today. But after the video surfaced and the world was justifiably outraged, an inquiry was the logical and politically expedient route for the B.C. government to take. It allowed the government to be seen to be doing something to "get to the bottom" of the many questions that surround taser use in Canada.

Even if it knew the inquiry could never do any such thing.

At best, I think Mr. Braidwood will end up affirming many of Mr. Kennedy's earlier findings.

As the complaints commissioner said in his December, 2007, report, there needs to be far more research conducted into the effect of tasers before we'll have anything near to a complete picture of its impact on people. And the RCMP and police forces have a pivotal role to play in providing the information needed for that necessary research to take place.

I think Mr. Braidwood will agree with that view and perhaps recommend formalizing this exchange of information in some way - maybe root it in law.

I'll also be surprised if Mr. Braidwood doesn't advocate a much more restrictive and narrowly defined set of guidelines for taser use - just as Mr. Kennedy did but never got.

It needs to be much harder for a police officer in this country to blast someone with 50,000 volts of electricity. As a weapon, the taser can't be considered the equivalent of pepper spray or a riot baton as it is now. It needs to be viewed as a weapon a notch from a gun.

There is no chance Mr. Braidwood will recommend banning the weapon outright.

As much as we were all repulsed by what happened to Robert Dziekanski, and upset over recent reports that cops are using tasers to apprehend so-called "non-compliant" transit passengers in the Vancouver area, the use of tasers under many, many circumstances is a better alternative to lethal force. The minimal element of risk represented by the taser is dwarfed by its ability to save far more lives than it will ever take away.

For better or worse, tasers are here to stay.

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