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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Veteran pathologist says he believes tasers can contribute to sudden death

May 21, 2008
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — There are no obvious features on a body to indicate to a pathologist that a Taser has directly caused a death, a former chief coroner told a B.C. public inquiry Wednesday.

But Dr. John Butt, who was the former chief coroner in Alberta and the chief medical examiner in Nova Scotia, said he believes Tasers can contribute to a sudden death. "There is no specific pathology related to death by Taser," Butt told the inquiry into Taser use.

He told retired judge Thomas Braidwood that when the anatomical cause of death is elusive, a pathologist must turn to so-called "proximate" events, such as intoxication from alcohol or cocaine, heart disease, or the force involved in the takedown by police.

"Often there is no hard-core, pathological information from the autopsy," Butt told reporters after he delivered his submission. In terms of what you see with your naked eye, nothing there."

He was reminded that Taser International's opinion of its stun gun is that it does not kill.

Butt noted the company says the weapon doesn't kill "directly." "But when you have a pre-existing cardiac condition and you deploy the Taser and the death occurs instantly, then I don't think it's an easy thing to dodge the responsibility."

Butt told the inquiry that he took it upon himself last year to try to become an expert in Tasers and has read on the subject widely. He said his research suggests Tasers are being used about 600 times a day in North America. "I would have concerns about the number of times it's deployed knowing that some of the rules for engagement are not sound."

The inquiry has already heard that police forces in B.C. don't have a uniform policy on Taser use and the training regimen varies from force to force, as do policies surrounding its deployment.

"The issue is rules of engagement," said Butt. "What are they? Are they the same for the Vancouver police department as they are for the RCMP?

"Have they been looked at as an ethical concern? I think one would want to look at them as an ethical concern knowing that there have been issues of sudden death associated with them."

Butt also expressed concern about the widespread marketing of the weapon, noting that it is being bought not only by more and more police forces but also by citizens for personal protection.

The inquiry heard Tuesday that the New Westminster police department has 20 Tasers and informs its trainees that injury or death could result. But it also provides no first-aid or cardiopulmonary resuscitation training.

Butt suggested that issue would come up in the second part of the Braidwood inquiry, which will look at Tasers and their connection in the death last fall of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport. Dziekanski had spent many hours in the airport and was agitated and throwing things. When four RCMP officers arrived to deal with him, he appeared confused and agitated. He was hit with a Taser almost immediately after police arrived and died shortly afterwards.

"I think you're going to hear a lot in the second part of the inquiry," said Butt. "I join with most of the people that they are very happy there is a video to look at (of Dziekanski' death) and I join most people in their concern if police don't have proper training in CPR."

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